Colin Powell School
Collective Transformation to Fulfill CCNY’s Historic Mission: Professor Chen on Becoming Sociology Department Chair
Can you share a little about your background and how you made the decision to go into academia?
As an organizational researcher, I specialize in studying how innovative democratic organizations can transform people’s relationships and help a broader range of stakeholders to collectively pursue their interests. This question was sparked by my own experiences with organizations that were too bureaucratic and hierarchical. I also was troubled by how university courses only taught conventional ways of running firms, voluntary associations, schools, and other institutions. I began to understand that people need real-world examples of what inclusive and meaningful forms of organizing look like. Learning about these organizational practices could inspire people to create futures that are more sustainable and equitable.
I’ve published widely on this research, including an award-winning book Enabling Creative Chaos: The Organization Behind the Burning Man Event. I also recently co-edited Organizational Imaginaries: Tempering Capitalism and Tending to Communities through Cooperatives and Collectivist Democracy, a collection of studies of worker cooperatives and other alternative organizations in several countries including the UK, France, Argentina, and Brazil. My most recent project examines a New York alternative school that has pioneered self-directed education and other democratic practices. This school has spread such practices across its international network of affiliates while remaining deeply rooted in its local community. In addition to observing and participating in democratic organizations, I have also studied how organizations more generally help people navigate complex markets, including when they choose health insurance providers or decide on options in school-choice districts.
Prior to joining CCNY, I earned my PhD in sociology at Harvard University and bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Stanford University. As a graduate student, I wasn’t sure whether I should go into academia, given how challenging of a career path is involved. Despite the difficulties, I can’t imagine a life without active research. Especially now, societies need more ways of imagining better possible worlds and bringing about these potential futures. By researching and teaching on these topics, scholars such as myself are able to inspire our society’s future leaders to think creatively and wisely about possibilities.
Why did you decide to take on the challenges of being department chair, and what are your priorities?
Serving as chair of the sociology department is another way that I can practice what I research – collective transformation. Organizational research has shown how diversity on teams makes them more creative and inclusive in their thinking, and as academia diversifies, I think we’re also becoming better able to address pressing social problems with greater sensitivity to stakeholders. In part, this involves recognizing and revaluing the often “invisible” work performed by various groups and individuals. For example, this past week I ran into Freddie Mendez, a former student who graduated from CCNY as a sociology major. He just finished his master’s degree in library sciences and will be transferring from his job at the Washington Heights public library to the Midtown public library. In part, his job entails helping patrons get accurate information, including on available social services and connecting with the appropriate agencies – critically important connective work, now that we are slowly emerging from the pandemic. Many of our undergraduates currently work in or go on to work in underserved communities – everything from mentoring high school and college students, to assisting with enrichment programs for people with autism, to advocating for parents and their children in schools. Such work is crucial to sustaining societies. Sociology degrees help students develop a deeper understanding of societal issues and gain the critical and research tools they need to work toward rectifying them.
My priorities as chair are to help our department grow in ways consistent with CCNY’s unique role within the community, as a linchpin, historied institution that fosters economic mobility.
Our faculty have a wealth of expertise on topics of great societal importance: ranging from housing policy and environmental issues, to the well-being of local and ethnic communities in the US and elsewhere. Through the courses, research opportunities, and mentoring that our faculty provide, we give students the training and knowledge they need to generate positive social change. Since our students are embedded in local communities – for instance, most live in NYC households, rather than dorms, and many also work in the NYC area – they are already well-positioned to make a broader societal impact, such as by connecting the people in their neighborhoods and organizations with resources and opportunities.
As a department, we do face challenges that alumni and other supporters could help with. We need people who can help mentor our undergraduates, many of whom are immigrants and first-generation college-goers who must navigate between their own needs and those of their families and communities. We also need donations to help fill resource gaps that have opened up in recent years. For instance, several of our faculty have retired or have left to continue their careers at other universities. We also lost our senior-most faculty member to COVID back in March 2020, an especially shocking loss. Our students and their households continue to be severely impacted by the pandemic, both in terms of its health consequences and its economic fallout. Donations would go far in supporting our students – from paying for necessary programs to helping us establish a faculty line in our department. Like many institutions in the wake of this pandemic, we’re aiming to rebuild, but we hope to do so in ways that strengthen relationships with local communities – including our beloved alumni. With your help, we can ensure that our next generation of graduates can act as the leaders they’re meant to be.