Student Spotlight: Shaonta' E. Allen
Written by Chris Pasion, graduate assistant to The Graduate School.
In sociology, there is debate over how involved a sociologist should be with the group they are studying. Historical approaches to sociology mimicked the scientific method, meaning the researcher was required to have a level of separation from the researched in order to maintain objectivity. But there is also an intimate understanding that can come only from situations where the researcher is close to the group they are studying. Shaonta’ E. Allen, a sociology PhD candidate, takes this approach to her dissertation project. “There is inherent validity in being close to what you study,” she says, “because there’s a certain level of insight that you have when you are actually a part of the things you are studying, which is actually beneficial and powerful.”
Shaonta’ is a Black Christian millennial scholar. These intersecting aspects of her identity inform the way she conducts and makes sense of her research. Her dissertation project, Unapologetically Black and Unashamedly Christian: Exploring the Complexities of Black Millennial Christianity, looks “specifically at how religion plays a role in how young Black Christians are making sense of racial inequality and how they go about responding to some of the racist conditions that they may experience,” she says. The church has a long legacy of facilitating political mobilization and activism. For example, the Civil Rights Movement saw leaders such as Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. leading peaceful protests in order to combat racism and seek Black liberation. But with church numbers seemingly in decline among the millennial generation, what role does the church play in the current social climate amid the Black Lives Matter movement?
Millennials have broadly become disenfranchised with institutions such as politics and religion, but Shaonta’ is wary of those who generalize young peoples’ relationship with the church. “If you look at just broad data on millennials, it’s like, 'Oh, nobody is going to church anymore–the churches are empty.' But we know within the Black community that religion has been a very strong aspect of the Black identity in America,” Shaonta’ says. “It does a disservice to not look at a particular cohort to see if something different is going on there. My study does that.”
Shaonta’ conducts her research with a community-based methodology. “Community-based research is very powerful because it allows the members of the community to have a stake and have a say in what is going on in the spaces that they navigate.” For her dissertation project, she interviewed 65 Black Christian millennials to collect their thoughts on their identity and how it informs their response to racial inequality. Shaonta’ has found that many young people in the community, while critical of some of the traditional aspects and practices of the religion, still lean heavily on their Christian faith (especially in times of social unrest). Her research has found that the church still plays an important and active role in guiding activism efforts. Recent demonstrations in the Black Lives Matter movement such as the Men in Suits marches, which echo the respectability politics of social movements in the past, are one way this can be seen.
One of the interesting exercises in Shaonta’s research is that her respondents had to consider which aspect of their identity was most dominant in their day-to-day lives. Which aspect informs their thoughts and actions more, their race or their faith? Are these aspects intimately intertwined or separate? “They definitely occupy this interesting social location where they had to reconcile with these tensions. That was a really big finding in my study,” she says. “Even though, spiritually, Christianity is their dominant identity and has the most bearing on what they do and how they do it, they also know that they have to be responsive to their conditions and, as they’re navigating society, people perceive them as Black first.” It was important for her participants “to find a way to cultivate a Black Christian identity.”
Shaonta’ has a number of goals that she wishes to achieve with her research. The first is that she wishes to inspire other people who feel that the research speaks to them and their lived experience. “I want other Black Christian millennials to know that there are other people out here who are using our faith to inspire our resistance to racial inequality,” she says. In addition, she wants to write for the doubters who "don’t think it’s possible to identify as Christian while truly working towards Black liberation.” She hopes her research will also help church leadership in understanding how best to serve the communities they lead. “We need to stop tap-dancing around mental health. We need to make sure we’re treating people of all walks of life, sexual orientations, and gender identities equally, and to make sure that the doors of the church are open for them.”
So far, Shaonta’ has published her research in the form of peer-reviewed articles (which can be found on her website); she also plans to publish a book on her findings. To assist with her continued research efforts, Shaonta’ was awarded a P.E.O. Scholars Award by P.E.O. International. She says the award “has been such a blessing because it allows me to dedicate this current academic year to writing my dissertation.” This award allows her to focus her efforts entirely on research, but she is also leading a Sociology of Race course in order to extend her expertise and knowledge to the classroom as well. “I felt that as a race scholar and as somebody committed to reducing racial inequality in society, a part of that is helping young people… I’ve got a full plate all the time, but I love it.”