New mosaic: Professor Venus Evans-Winters’ new book examines black women’s role in the qualitative research process
When Venus Evans-Winters wrote her latest book, Black Feminism in Qualitative Inquiry (BFQI), she became her own research participant.
For two years, the Illinois State professor logged copious notes in conversations with friends, family, students, and colleagues about life experiences they shared together. Those details pulled back the curtain on her upbringing on the South Side of Chicago, motherhood, and her professional career and service.
“I put parts of my own life story out there with me and all of my business at the center of that story,” she said. “I wanted to sit in my own discomfort because that’s what I’ve been doing for 15 years in my own work, looking at other people and telling their stories.”
The data that appears in BFQI is a compilation of narrative, prose poetry, and performance texts broken up into 11 sections (called field notes). Evans-Winters’ approach intentionally breaks from traditional qualitative methods and data collection. The objective was to preserve the authenticity of each participant’s interactions and contributions.
“The human experience is dynamic, and so should our analyses in telling/writing tales of it,” Evans-Winters writes.
Evans-Winters is an educator of aspiring teachers and P–20 administrators for Illinois State’s Department of Educational Administration and Foundations. She teaches Critical Race Theory in Education and Social Foundations of Education, and also instructs courses in the Women’s and Gender Studies Program. BFQI, published last year by Routledge, is the seventh book she has authored or co-edited.
In BFQI Evans-Winters shared the voices of several black women in her life as well as several prominent authors and activists who have influenced her thinking. These firsthand accounts and transcripts served as supporting evidence for Evans-Winters’ argument that black feminism must serve a larger role in the qualitative research process, particularly when sharing stories taken from the hearts and minds of black women and other women of color.
“Black feminism has always informed gender work in the academy, and it has certainly informed race work inside and outside of academia,” she said. “But from a social scientific perspective, black feminism and research in qualitative inquiry has always been centered at the margins.”
Evans-Winters said it is no secret that black women authors are not represented in course syllabi in higher education. Instead, texts constructed by white authors occupy much of the intellectual capital.
“But black women have always been somewhere at the center of research, going back to (author and anthropologist) Zora Neal Hurston, who was collecting data for (anthropologist) Franz Boas out of Barnard. We’ve always been around the research table, but we were either being researched on or out there collecting data for the colonizers.”
While Evans-Winters said women of color are among the fastest-growing college segments (and consumers of books), she knows of only a few who are writing about the qualitative analyses process. One of the current forms of resistance she battles is Western culture’s tendency to circumscribe feminism as a white women’s perspective.
“As (author and feminist) bell hooks said, feminism is for everybody. Black feminism is an ideology; it’s a philosophy; it’s a pedagogy; and it’s a way we do our organizing work across communities,” she said.
In addition to giving black feminism momentum as an interpretive tool, Evans-Winters intended for BFQI to problematize the use of formulaic, outmoded methods of qualitative inquiry when representing those from marginalized groups.
“It’s not going to make a lot of sense for black, African, indigenous, Latinx, and women of color—sometimes even white women or even men—to continue to try to work with communities of color in research pursuits and then pick up a white male researcher’s book on how to interpret data to make sense of these communities.”
One way BFQI accomplishes this is by removing the process of data collection from sterile, stilted environments.
In one interaction in her book, Evans-Winters presents her unedited text-message exchange with research participant Skyye, a young black woman. The dialogue illustrates co-education. The professor was introduced to new concepts about religion, meanwhile, Skyye took in her professor’s scientific perspectives.
“We cannot just ignore the fact that when we are interacting with human participants, those emails, informal conversations, etc. do become data that’s open for interpretation,” she said. “For example, text messages may become artifacts.”
Evans-Winters’ own conceptualization of black feminism draws upon imagery of a glass mosaic. Black women’s individual experiences and multiple identities—race, class, gender, and sexuality—each contribute a unique piece of glass. Crafted together, they form an intersectional perspective that provides a “creative, distinctly mosaic worldview,” writes Evans-Winters.
“I am showing qualitative researchers how we use black feminism or African womanism to engage in embodied data analysis,” she said. “Black feminism is not just how we think about the world but how we move in the world; how we make sense in this world; it’s how we bring our data to life.”
Distrusting the process
The development of BFQI took Evans- Winters five years. She has found that the work was cathartic for many researchers and community activists. For them, BFQI put to words many of the conflicted feelings they were experiencing about the qualitative research process.
“They told me they felt as though their research was making them uneasy, depressed, and anxious,” Evans-Winters said. “They knew that there was something exploitive, harmful, or that there was something missing. This book showed them why the research experience can feel traumatizing.”
Evans-Winters expressed that these researchers can often directly relate to the race-based or childhood trauma endured by interviewees. Their proximity to this pain heightens their sensitivity to the ethical concerns posed by the public presentation of these stories.
BFQI also questions the ethics of surveyor selection. Evans-Winters remarks that participants are often chosen because they are easily accessible. However, many of these populations are easily accessible because they are also vulnerable. These targeted groups include students with disabilities; children who are black, brown, or from indigenous communities; prisoners; and pregnant women.
“We always get more out of our research than we provide. We are inscribing their bodies into text or inscribing their stories into text or even a conference presentation,” Evans-Winters said. “We are not doing them much justice. I think it’s very voyeuristic, and I think it’s exploitive, and I think in some cases it’s immoral.”
Despite Evans-Winters’ disappointment with aspects of the research process, she remains an advocate for qualitative inquiry.
In one of the field notes in her book, she describes her involvement with high school girls of color who had conducted a project in collaboration with Girls for Gender Equity (GGE), a New York-based youth organization. The students’ extensive data collection unearthed the harmful effects school disciplinary policies have on young girls.
Evans-Winters was recruited by GGE to support its collective efforts to turn the work into an academic study using the lens of radical black feminism. The belief was that if the work was accepted in academia, it could bolster the legitimacy of these findings in the eyes of school administrators and propel a response.
At that time, Evans-Winters’ disenchantment with the disconnectedness of the qualitative research process was at a high. Initially, her approach to the project was not overtly positive. However, an invasive trip through airport security reminded her of the importance of this work. In those moments, she related a loss of dignity and unwanted contact with the state-sanctioned violence that occurs against adolescent girls daily.
“With this epiphany, the challenge for me as a researcher was to help the girls convey their experiences and emotions throughout the research process,” Evans-Winters writes.
In BFQI, the use of daughtering is used to conceptualize one aspect of black girls and women. Throughout Evans-Winters’ text, this term represents the role black girls play within their families, communities, and society. She explains that black girls are taught to help support their household and stand up for the most vulnerable members of their neighborhood.
Daughtering is also present in the witnessing, retaining of secrets, and informing the stories about elders. The idea is somewhat different from “mothering,” as daughtering is fostered by an inherited communal, ontological, and spiritual-cultural responsibility. When taking on the perspective of daughtering in black feminism, researchers are better equipped to understand these women’s words, actions, and feelings.
The next steps
Evans-Winters’ desire to support black girls and women has gone far beyond her work in higher education. She has educated herself to become a health and wellness coach, a mindfulness meditation teacher, a licensed clinical psychotherapist, a certified clinical trauma professional, and a licensed social worker.
“I studied and trained and became all of those things because I realized my respective communities needed it,” she said.
Her work in these areas has also directly informed her research with cisgender and transgender black girls and gender nonconforming black youth.
“These groups have been telling us what they need, but those of us in the academy, we were not listening, or we were not in the spaces to know,” she said.
As a newly promoted full professor at Illinois State, Evans-Winters said her next projects are aimed at empowering as many black women and other women of color researchers to tell their stories and to be at the forefront of the research and writing process.
“How many of us get to the level where we have access to editors and to journals and to publishing houses? I have that access, and I want to open the floodgates. We definitely need to do more to help black women and all women of color to see themselves in the curriculum and across the faculty. And in our pedagogy.”