Outreach as a Form of Fieldwork

Briggle and Frodeman (2016, p. 36) characterize field philosophy as operating “at the meso level—at the level of the project, where philosophers work over the long term with scientists, engineers, and policy makers.” They do not consider public writing and speaking—the activity of public intellectuals—to be a form of field philosophy. They argue that the distinction between public philosophy and field philosophy is that while public intellectuals speak to the public and emphasize their own intellectual expertise, fieldwork engages with practitioners and publics in inquiry in a way that builds solutions from the bottom up. Fieldwork is therefore not a top-down relationship in which philosophers simply offer their own versions of analytic, critical, and conceptual tools to the groups with whom they work.

However, I would argue that Frodeman and Briggle have framed a false dichotomy and have an oversimplified account of how the practices of public philosophy fit with philosophical fieldwork. My own experience has been that non-academic educational lectures, when embedded in a larger context of engagement, are best understood as a form of field philosophy. Public lectures can be presented in collaboration with community stakeholders in order to advocate for effective change through policymakers, to prime discussion among physicians, law enforcement, and other practitioners about ethics, and to provide a venue for initiating or deepening relationships. An example is the interim committee on human trafficking that Representative Pam Peterson set up in 2012 and to which law enforcement officers, lawmakers, and women’s coalition members were invited to attend. She wanted to hear the facts and brainstorm with stakeholders in order to decide on legislation. Soon after, the state of Oklahoma passed more policies on human trafficking.

My primary form of engagement on the issue of human trafficking has been to give lectures to local groups and organizations. I have spoken to groups with participants from churches, youth camps, senior citizens’ groups, a writers’ guild, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, the Oklahoma Social Security office, medical and law schools, and people who investigate financial fraud. Such lectures raise community awareness about the complex ethical and policy issues concerning human trafficking, and each talk is tailored to the group’s needs. Some use the information to change their practices or make adjustments. My aim is to empower the audience to become watchful citizens and create effective change in their organizations. The result of this sort of work can only be seen over the long term. In my personal connections with others, I have heard that the conversation around human trafficking is increasing. Individual education and awareness is necessary to bring about awareness and change in one’s community.

In my talks, I also try to stimulate consideration of the idea of freedom. People typically think of images of human trafficking victims who are in physical bondage. Since most are not in physical bondage (unlike their media representations), the idea of mental bondage has to be discussed, evaluated, and understood. Otherwise, victims who are not in shackles or tied up are falsely considered to be free and, hence, liable to be treated as criminals (especially in states where prostitution is illegal); in this way, they are revictimized. My technique engages in field philosophy by inviting audiences to a deeper consideration of ideas of choice and freedom so they can recognize that physical freedom is not the only indicator of freedom. I have found this to be quite eyeopening for the general public.

Having wide experience teaching philosophy to different types of students— from middle school to non-traditional college students and from a liberal arts college to a university setting—was helpful in shaping my judgment about how best to reach out to radically varied audiences. My training in philosophy prepared me to lead dialogue on really difficult issues that most people prefer to avoid. Although I initially prepared myself for research in the philosophy of race, I have found that a key philosophical skill is to identify how core concepts such as choice and autonomy become manifest in different issues. Philosophers also share an understanding that posing difficult questions is not meant just to tear down others’ beliefs; rather, they are used to expose shared, often hidden, assumptions, and to build up theoretical understanding.

With that in mind, asking hard questions has led me to expand my understanding and to invite those I speak with to follow this path of inquiry. I have often felt challenged presenting on sex work and sex slavery to non-academic audiences. This is especially true when audiences are reluctant to relinquish prior assumptions or change their views. For example, it is difficult for many audiences to see a relevant distinction between willing sex workers and those who are trafficked. In one memorable case, a person who gave direct care to human trafficking victims believed that no one voluntarily participates in sex work, which supports the belief that everyone who has worked in the industry is a victim. This is not the case. People get into sex work for many different reasons. Additionally, by speaking to groups of professionals and policymakers, I encourage reflection on policy and implementation. This affects how law enforcement responds to victims, as well as how resources are distributed. Social analysis provides concepts for policymakers to think about the future implications of legislation, how laws are enforced, and how victims are treated.

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