Open Letter to a Tenured University Professor Who Wants to Write a Grant to “Study” and “Prove” and Publish On the Marion Voices Folklife + Oral History Program Equity Budgeting Model. K.

14 min readAug 4, 2020
Reddi-Whip, Birthday Cake, & Corn Cake at the Kirkpatrick Church of Christ — Marion County, Ohio

Jess –

Thanks so much for your input today!

I was wondering if you were aware of research articles and/or activist statements and claims about equity budgeting? If there’s no data on the practice, that’s or [sic] angle to try to get about $50K to invest in that space and prove concept, if it has been studied, we want to know where we would have opportunities to do something novel. I was thinking about partnering with the City to be able to tap public support dollars, too. I welcome your thoughts and feedback when you have a moment.



Hi ________,

Thanks for your note and these conversations. I’m grateful you and the [University] [Project]group are willing to entertain these conversations about design for more equitable, less-extractive community-collaborative project practice. I very much recognize that modes of design like the one we employ at Marion Voices Folklife + Oral History Program, and the praxes I teach in my consultancy aren’t standard for university-community partnerships; indeed, that’s because they come from, arise in, and exist for grassroots community organizing.

“Equity budgeting” is a concept and term I’ve developed through my community-based practices across my Caledonia Northern Folk Studios consultancy and through our Marion Voices Folklife + Oral History work since 2017, and in conversation with beloved Marion County racial justice leader, community cultural organizer, & anti-racism educator Johnnie Jackson (Supervisor of Diversity & Inclusion at Marion City Schools, and Marion Voices Community Coordinator) and other community collaborators (CC’d here); incidentally, I do have articles — both academic but, more importantly, for public-facing outlets in local history and other similar spaces — about the model under development; and have presented on the model around the country, and, since 2017, have written and won a number of grants to pilot our work in Equity Budgeting as a part of many of my projects. More immediately, I microblog constantly about our project work through accessible platforms like Twitter, where my writing is frequently in conversation with movers & shakers for racial & economic justice praxis in oral history, public history, public-sector cultural work (and presses on and contributes to the national professional organizations for those communities), and in many other online & activist spaces. But that actually shouldn’t matter. Whether or not we have pieces published on our Marion Voices equity budgeting model is very much not the point. In fact, the point is why that’s not the point. So I’m going to take a minute to explain.

My community cultural organizing isn’t by, for, or of academia. We don’t need to “prove concept” on our Marion Voices equity budgeting model — it’s been a proven, vetted, and tested in community, through deep relationships that we’ve been building together for years; and has won support from numerous funders across the state for our Marion Voices and my other Caledonia Northern Folk Studios-supported work, including the highest grant score in the 2019 Ohio Arts Council ArtsNEXT award out of over 78 applicants. Moreover, our model has been “proven” (though we don’t use or need research language in the work we do) because we’re doing it. If it wasn’t working — and when it hasn’t — our community has let us know; we’ve written new grants, changed course, and done our best to pivot responsibly & nimbly. In academia, I understand the writing about is “the work”; out here, the work is the work.

I say this because, though I understand you’re enthusiastic to try out more equitable models with your [project] work, and to collaborate with me and/or Marion Voices (all good!), I do think I detect a trace of a deficit model approach to community projects, coming from a university standpoint, and many long-ingrained (and damaging) assumptions: that this sort of work, and praxes, isn’t valid or respectable (to academics) unless it’s written about in academic forums for academic audiences. IMHO, that’s a dangerous & backwards approach. I want to take the time — time, please note, that I’m not being paid for, because I care, and because I want this [project] work, if it’s to happen in our community, to be of and by and for our community — to help share why.

You may ask how, if we haven’t published about it yet in premiere academic journals, or conducted fixed-variable studies on it, how Marion Voices’ equity budgeting model might be said to be proven & tested? It’s been proven and tested through the other ways the world works: through radical visioning, experimental building in community, fundraising/advocacy, & constant emergent design in the flow of practice. It’s been round-the-clock work for us, since I began working towards these models c. 2015, to help educate funders, our community, and the wider fields of community-based cultural organizing I work in about the benefit and praxis of an equity budgeting model.

Our Marion Voices equity budgeting model — and the entire “equity budgeting” concept that I’ve developed and been presenting on with collaborators and solo over the last several years — has also been heavily influenced by long-standing conversations and praxes developed by the Oral History Undercommons radical oral history working group, of which I am also a founding member; my collaborator Danielle Dulken and others there have likewise done considerable advocacy around models of paying oral history narrators. This work actively centers Black & indigenous practice & ways of knowing, and echoes calls for economic justice & reparative community-collaborative practice that have been coming from organizing spaces for literal decades. This work has been many years in the making, from, of, and by grassroots praxis. We’ve pulled along the way from many other social justice community organizing models that flip the script and insist what I think all of us here know to be true: communities don’t need projects; but projects (esp. university ones!) need community. The work our Marion community will be putting in to advising your project project is labor which, no matter how the project may also benefit our community, also always benefits [university] and [regional campus], and is good PR — and labor needs to be recognized as such.

Of course, as I’ve said above: demands for paying community collaborators a living wage to compensate them for their time is nothing new — this is standard across most racial and economic justice organizing. That’s not to say we haven’t done a great deal of work at Marion Voices (and in my consultancy) to name & develop a coherent model for equitable community-collaborative budgeting that works in non-profit/community spaces; but to acknowledge that our model hasbeen deeply shaped by those calls, as well as by my own personal long involvement in labor organizing in the public history, public humanities, and community cultural work sectors, fighting for visibility & a living wage for cultural workers, to help make our field more accessible to practitioners from all backgrounds, and, especially, from marginalized positionalities. At Marion Voices, we extend our Equity Budgeting praxis to our full program model; and also employ a Community Scholars model adopted from public folklore practice, as well as education and advocacy about just payment for precarious, unsalaried cultural workers … like myself! Know that part of this is about the labor of community cultural organizers, too. A prime example: I’m not on salary. I’m not being paid to write these emails or to respond; as such, when I advise on projects for universities, I ask to be paid on a contract. These insistences are a critical part of the equity work of equity budgeting — working to make the field accessible by educating powerful institutions and funders on the value of community labor.

When you ask if our Marion Voices equity budgeting model & concept “has been studied” or “has data” to back it up, I fear that you — like many professors and university personnel — assume our work and our community subscribes to university-based values and privileges university-based forums of knowledge production & sharing. We don’t. That’s not a problem or a lack; that’s on purpose. It’s political. Marion Voices — on *purpose* — is rooted in other praxes and working towards other ends. To be honest, it reads as offensive and in poor taste to assume something’s not “vetted” or “studied” just because it doesn’t conform to university research models; and it’s even more odious, to me, to imply that a community-based project would need to or want to be “studied.” We’ve worked for years to launch and fund our project, with great success, and we’re thrilled to be growing Marion Voices’ work day by day, rooted in community-collaborative praxis; if you want to call it research, it’s participatory action research. If you want to see the results of studies, we’re a public humanities & social change project — look at what we do. That’s what praxis means. Not a project that produces theory; but theory that’s put to work, always for the ends of transforming our community. I tell you this because I feel it might be valuable to understand how these systems of value — very much the infrastructure of university spaces — sound & land outside of those spaces.

My work in the community-based cultural organizing sectors — and the precarity and erasure that working-class, unsalaried community cultural organizers, especially POC, women, and queer folks almost always experience in those spaces, which often drives us out of them — is also not unrelated to why you may now be thinking the model isn’t “developed” or “proven” just because I don’t have a book out on it.

Many people write books; I organize. I neither have the luxury of writing books nor is that the most appropriate, urgent, or necessary modality for my organizing at this moment. That’s not what Marion Voices is or needs or wants, and isn’t what our community has been asking for.

In a university, I understand that peer review is the gold standard for the validity or recognition of working models. Outside of universities, there are lots of models of praxes for community change. In the work I do, best practices — radical, transformative ones — get vetted & proven by what works: by what makes our participants and friends and comrades feel valued, seen, adequately compensated, and cared for. Here, and in this work, these are the metrics that matter — not if something’s been written up in a publication somewhere that’s paywalled, laced with jargon, and not accessible to our community anyway. I choose not, in my work and praxis, to value university ways of knowing that are foreign too and often actively violent to the community-based, reparative, Black & Indigenous & vernacular lifeways-led alternative forms of value-making that my work seeks to amplify & nurture in this world.

Please know that Marion Voices doesn’t need, want, or authorize a grant to be written by someone else to study or extend our project model. I’ll happily consult with you (and can send my rates) to help your project better align with our recommended model of equity budgeting & community-collaborative praxis — as may many of my amazing collaborators here may also be happy to do, and which many of us do as our livelihoods or side hustles — and we’d be happy to consider a contract to share what we’ve learned in our Marion Voices work; but that means paying us to advise you on our model and how to build a project that listens to and fits our community, not taking or studying our model. To echo the disability justice movement’s rallying cry: Nothing about us, without us.

For my part, in 2020–2021, here are our needs: we are trying to fund and sustainably grow Marion Voices, translating our major state grants into national/federal & also local grant support, to help grow a permanent operating line for our work, a permanent fund for community scholar & narrator stipends, and salaries for our staff (like me!!!); and we are heading into a very big year of collaborative oral history work and exhibit-building, and are hoping to launch a brand-new slate of educational outreach programs. It’s terribly exciting. It’s also more than a full-time job, and right now, it’s not very paid; which is why I consult on our project model and other matters of community-collaborative praxis for projects like yours as a livelihood to help fund and sustain this work.

I can happily send you a one-pager on our Marion Voices Equity Budgeting concept & model if you’d like (which could only be shared or used for other purposes — like informing the writing of grants — with my *explicit* knowledge and involvement and collaboration — and, I should add, veto power) and will certainly share our articles as or if they’re up, whether in academic forums or the fora that matter more to our community. It goes without saying, I would expect to be credited appropriately — both myself, and Marion Voices, as well as the larger lineage of this work — and included in any conversations considering the use of our model. If you want myself, Johnnie, or others here to consult for the project, let us know, and we can set up that call; many of us in Marion County are happy to consult on radical practices in community collaboration and core principles of anti-racist praxis; and supporting us in doing that helps support our livelihoods so we can all continue this work in our community.

As far as “proving” the Equity Budgeting concept Marion Voices has developed — happy to say, without being snide: it’s already being proved! It works — or at least we hope so — and it’s been recognized by major funders across the state; and Marion Voices uses an iterative cycle for feedback, including frequent internal & external evaluations and constant informal feedback from community collaborators, to try to better our model and keep it working well for everyone. We’re excited to grow it and to share it. But having a university step in and “prove” it for us, using white-Western-colonial models of what does or doesn’t count as “data,” then write about without us having leadership over teaching you the project model would feel beyond unethical and bizarre (just describing a worst-case, dystopian scenario) — moreover, such a construction pits community work against “research,” and privileges the latter as more valuable/legitimate, which is a presumption that says alot about why research universities have had so much trouble connecting with and supporting there communities time and time again across history. I’ve written extensively on why universities need to break with a dangerous model of only seeing conventional modes of “knowledge production” in conventional forums “as” valuable contributions; and that other models developed through extensive community-collaborative and participatory action models are somehow in need of “proving.”

Maybe you don’t intend that, and if so, no harm no foul but; FYI. I do need to say, unfortunately, that I would certainly *not* be comfortable with someone else writing a grant to fund a “proof test” of this model unless I was centrally involved in leading those efforts and if they materially helped us grow and sustain our grassroots work with Marion Voices … and unless it was coming from me and from our community, in open, consenting, transparent conversation. You don’t have my permission right now to do such a thing. You should know I’ve had some bad run-ins — both my own, and real experiences I’ve been told about from close friends & colleagues — having project models developed in community-based, precarious projects plagiarized (implicitly, and very explicitly) by professors and others in much more secure, institutionally-supported university spaces, and then used to pony up BIG pots of money while our same community projects struggled for funding. I’ve lived through that nightmare before — and have learned first-hand how little power community-based practitioners have in defending & protecting their own project models against tenured professors & university-based knowledge-value systems. I assume you may be shocked to learn that this sadly is a VERY common dynamic with university “scooping” of community-developed praxes. But I can tell you, from my vantage & location: it is. And it’s not an experience I’m willing to repeat. Been there, done that. Never again, so far as I (and my community) can help it. So please know these have been my experiences; I’m on the lookout for that kind of thing and expect to be treated right, and am not afraid to demand that — not just for myself, but to create more just and ethical relationships for everyone involved in or hoping to collaborate with this sort of work. Equity for all starts with equitable, just, reparative practices in every relationship — especially across unequal power dynamics. Cool?

I imagine, as you are a professor (though I know there are all kinds of professors — even “good professors!”), that my response may be puzzling to you — and may seem even mean, rude, or ungrateful. I don’t say any of this out of mean-spiritedness, nor out of a refusal to collaborate. I’m happy to talk more. And, I don’t operate from a place of communities needing universities. I operate from a place of universities needing communities — and having long ventriloquized them while extracting from, exploiting, and stealing vibrant grassroots efforts. This is my activist lineage, so I do take seriously my responsibility, especially as a white practitioner in radical community-based work for racial, social, & economic justice, to call it like I see it, and not pull any punches.

So, I want to be very clear about what you have in mind and also, what my expectations are, if you want to work with me and/or our wider Marion Voices project team to learn from or even adopt our Equity Budgeting praxis & model for your project work — especially since this is a model we’ve worked hard to develop over the years. I’d be happy to consider consulting about our model and push your project towards more equitable practices, or to be enlisted as an expert in the model as an asset on a project — as would, I’d assume, many of the community organizers & leaders we’ve partnered with in our three years of Marion Voices project work. But I need to assure, again, that I don’t feel this is not something that needs tested and developed by a university unless we feel that’s what makes sense for our community; and we’re already working in many such spaces. We’d be happy to collaborate or to help consult with you to train you in best practices for community partnership; but that’s not the same as us seeking academic validation for our project model for academic audiences in academic spaces, to be published in academic fora & in media that aren’t accessible (jargon!) or open (paywalled!) to our communities here in Marion County anyway.

If you’d like me to share my writing on our equity budgeting model, please send me a bit more about how it’ll be used and credited, and what you’re thinking moving forward. Happy to talk more; and definitely open to consult on contract on your project, if you’re significantly interested in me (via my consultancy) or our Marion Voices team training you guys in our equity budgeting praxis, or in further conversation. Please just know that many of us do this work professionally, and, beyond the initial free consult period, do expect — for reasons detailed above — to be contracted before we continue more substantial consultancy work for a university, organization, or project. By refusing to normalize unpaid work for precarious cultural workers, we not only respect & make visible our own time and labor, but stand in solidarity with precarious community organizers doing justice work across our country, and help keep these necessary livelihoods accessible to all.

In solidarity,

Jess Lamar Reece Holler

Caledonia Northern Folk Studios

Principal & Community Cultural Worker // Consultant

Project Director + Founder, Marion Voices Folklife + Oral History Project

the Marion County Historical Society

Marion County, Ohio




cultural worker + oral historian who tries to listen. cares alot about justice for working people. columbus x marion county, ohio.