"None of This Means Anything if You Can't Bring Other People Along:" Dean Linda Burton on Leadership, Scholarship, and Shaping the Discourse

August 29, 2019

Linda M. BurtonLinda Burton begins her term as dean of Berkeley Social Welfare on September 1. She brings a wealth of experience to the role, having served as the James B. Duke Professor of Sociology, and previously dean of Social Sciences and director of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University. She also brings a multi-decade reputation as a preeminent scholar on child welfare and poverty. We sat down to talk with her about her prior roles, her scholarship, and her plans for the School of Social Welfare at Berkeley.

You bring an impressive amount of leadership experience to this role: you have served as Dean of the Social Sciences Division at Trinity College at Duke, as the director of the Center for Family and Child Policy at Duke, and as leader of a number of large-scale studies. Could you talk about the highlights of some of those experiences?
Let me go back a couple of decades before some of those opportunities came along, because leadership started for me really early in my career, and it wasn't something that I expected. Leadership in some respects found me. I started my first position at Penn State in 1984, a newly-minted PhD with four young kids, all under the age of eight. Now when you start a tenure-track position with young kids, your eyes are squarely focused on getting tenure. But although I had to focus on these particular elements, I wasn't able to limit my efforts to that narrow view of just getting tenure. Back in the early 1980s, institutions were opening up their doors a little bit more in terms of the need for having minority faculty, and what came along with that is that as a scholar of color, you sort of get pinpointed early on to do lots of things that you're not necessarily prepared for. I was fortunate enough to get a tenure-track position and that put me in a space where not only my peers, but faculty of color that were much more senior to me other institutions thought "She's at Penn State, so she knows how to do this." So they started calling. Let me add parenthetically that the first quality any mentor should have is a willingness to admit their limitations, both to themselves and to anyone they're mentoring. You have to understand yourself, and you want your mentee to understand that just because you are a mentor, that doesn't make you an absolute expert.

But nonetheless, people kept calling. So if you're put in this leadership position, what do you do? Do you say, "No, I'm going to just focus on what I need to focus on," or do you share the knowledge that you've gained? You know, none of this means anything if you can't bring other people along or share what you know, or help them to build their careers. So my leadership actually started early on with mentorship. I was mentoring not only people who were my same rank, or postdocs and graduate students coming behind me, but also people that were senior to me. And of course I still had to stay focused on the tenure process, but I found that it sparked a little bit more creativity on my part because I said, "How can I continue to mentor, which is just part of my soul, and also do the other stuff that I need to do?" So then you start getting creative and you figure out how to lead, but get your own work done as well. In my second year as an assistant professor at Penn State, I thought, "In about five years, they're going to be writing letters out to people that I don't even know and asking them to evaluate me for tenure. I have four young kids and I'm a single mom, but these people need to know my work. So what is the best way to accomplish that?" I decided to ask my senior colleagues to help me meet other senior folks of color that worked in my field and organize a national conference on Black families. So instead of going to everybody else, I brought them to Penn State and got to know everybody all at one time. When I went to the Provost's office, he kind of giggled, and said "If you're bold enough to come to the provost as a second-year assistant professor and ask for money for top brass, I'm going to give it to you."

Doing those kinds of things leads you to develop other kinds of alternatives for how you move through the world and how you move through the academy, which I think ultimately adds to your leadership acumen. You just become very nimble: you have to know when to toe the line but you have to also know when to be flexible and look at alternatives.

Your early work focused on gerontology and then over the course of your career, you've kind of worked in reverse chronological order: from old age to middle age, to early adulthood, to adolescence, to childhood. What led you to pursue this kind of "Benjamin Button" approach to the life course, and how it does intersect with the emphasis on family relationships and family role transitions in your research?
At every step of the way, I made sure I listened to what people were telling me, and they would always refer back to their history. Their narrative began long before I got a chance to meet them. For elderly people, I was seeing where they had arrived, but not fully understanding how they actually got there, and more importantly, how historical context made a difference in how they got there. Moving backwards, you get a chance to see some of the common features that people — have regardless of when they were born — in terms of the human need for connection, and love, and being wanted, and having purpose in life. Those threads go through whatever generation you're in, but people have different chances based on when they come along and what kind of historical situations they experience at a given time.

I started out studying the early transition to grandmotherhood, working with grandmothers in their mid-twenties. I would see these very compressed generations, where a young girl would have a child at age 13 so her mother becomes a grandmother at 27 and her mother's mother then becomes a great-grandmother at 40. One of the patterns that emerged was a skipped generation of parenting. So the 27-year-old grandmother/mother and 13-year-old daughter behaved more like siblings to one another than like mother and daughter. What happens is that when this 13-year-old has a child, that is oftentimes the first time her mother has a chance to raise a child, because the child of a teenage mother is so often raised by the grandmother since the mother's age simply doesn't provide her with the experience to be able to raise a child. When you move backwards chronologically, you understand how the generations work because you see the different experiences they have and you see the different choices they make.

You have mentioned that earlier in your career, the terminology around family structures and generational transitions — the lens through which these structures are viewed — didn't match what you were seeing. How has the terminology evolved? And how have you helped shift that discourse?
I explored that issue in an essay co-authored with [professor emerita] Carol Stack, who was chair of women's studies at Berkeley and who has been my mentor since forever. When we met in the mid-1980s, we both struggled with how to present our work. For me it was mostly from the perspective that I was African American studying African American families at a time when scholars in the field, who were mostly White males, often assumed I had an intrinsic bias. And because the legacy of the Moynihan report lived on into the 80s, poverty was highly politicized. When I was a new-minted PhD I had this conversation with Carol Stack about how people would either write about Black families in the deficit-based language that came from the Moynihan report, or with a very romanticized notion of "kin taking care of kin." But we all know that no matter how close families are, there is inevitably some conflict and some negotiation. So I pushed for middle-ground language to say, you know, there's some good things about these family structures and dynamics, but there are some tough things too. And if we want to move forward, especially with poverty, the discourse has to acknowledge both. It can't be deficit-based because that's dehumanizing to people, and it can't be romanticized either. Yes, "Black families take care of their own," but so do White families, Latino families, etc. And the other part of "kin taking care of kin" is that is it's not all roses: there are some trade-offs that come along when you have limited resources that can be distributed across multiple generations. So we needed to shift the discourse to find out how those resources are distributed and where social services can help when needed. That's a different approach to take in studying family structure, and ultimately a more productive one.

You have described your research methodology as "slow ethnography." Could you say more about that, not only in terms of the insights into the differences between how people represent their lives versus how they live them, but also in terms of the strengths of an ethnographic approach in studying social welfare?
The real strength of an ethnographic approach is that you have the opportunity to compare what people say to what they actually do. You don't necessarily get a chance to do that in survey research because you see a person one time and ask them your series of questions, but when you see them over time you see how consistent their behaviors actually are with what they say. I trust that level of gathering observations so much more because in a way, ethnography is like dating someone. We know that when people meet each other for the first time they send their representative... they send the person that they want the other person to believe in. If the relationship blossoms then you find out four or five months later that things might be might be a little different. And that's oftentimes what I would find in doing ethnography. I had to be able to distinguish whether or not they had sent their representative initially, and whether the person I saw in the fourth month was who they really are or their representative. You also have to pay attention to whether or not that person is actually making change. If someone is different in month one versus month five, I get to see if they're engaged with any social service agencies, or if someone has picked them up as a mentor, or if something traumatic has happened in their lives to change them one way or another. This allows you to see the difference between state and trait, which simply doesn't come across in the same way in other contexts.

For the ethnographic component of the Three Cities study, which aimed to study the impact of welfare reform, we had 256 families — African American, White, and Latino — and we followed them for seven years. We got in the weeds with these families, traversing all these different environments and seeing how they responded to different environments and how different environments responded to them. We were psychologically and physically present with families. We were there with them at midnight, we went to the doctor with them, went to funerals, went to weddings, all those kinds of things. That kind of science really gives you the opportunity to compare what people say to what they actually do. That's where the best lessons are learned because you get a chance to look at the consistency between their words and their actions, and how it plays itself out in terms of the outcomes you see in families.

It takes a while for people to get to trust you. It depends on what personal situations they're in, especially if we take the case of domestic violence and sexual abuse. And I have to say: if America could deal with that issue seriously -- I'm not saying that no attention has been given to it, but it needs more attention than it's given because its effect is so traumatic, and it's so long lasting — if we actually dealt with that, we could probably fix 50 to 60% of what's going on with people having difficulty moving forward and being successful through life, because it has such a dramatic effect.

What are you most looking forward to as you begin your tenure here at Berkeley Social Welfare?
My first steps are going to revolve around doing a listening tour with the faculty, the staff and the students to get to know what people's different passions are, what their visions for the school might be, what they see are the strengths and the areas that we need to build on.

Taking all those into account, I think that I would like to work together with everyone at a community level in two ways. First of all, strengthening our ties with the local community because there is such a need — at least from what I can see — in the East Bay and the Bay Area in general. The School of Social Welfare has a footprint there, but there's always more that can be done in terms of making sure that we are true partners with folks in the community, and that we go at that not by inviting folks to our table, but by encouraging them to invite us to have a seat at their table so that we work from the place that's most important to them.

Secondly, we need to consider which major social issues are going to be most relevant to our expertise in the near future and beyond. As researchers and practitioners we have a lot of expertise to offer on issues of mental health, or on the societal impacts of shifts in immigration policy, especially as it relates to families and children. The prison-industrial complex is another major social justice issue. We already have some sense of what that has meant for the incarceration of individuals of color — mostly African American and Latino males — in proportion to their representation in the population, but what about women, and what are the implications for families and children as we move forward? What role can Berkeley Social Welfare play in informing and shaping the national conversation and shaping policy around these important issues?

I have also had dreams of building a brain trust or an innovation center. I'm an interdisciplinary thinker by nature, not only with respect to standard disciplines like psychology, sociology and economics, for example, but also practice and clinical work. How do we continue to bring people together in a fashion where the whole comes up with a better solution than the parts would have if they worked in silos? So we want to continue to foster interdisciplinary work, continuing to bring the brightest students, the brightest faculty and staff. And when I say bright I'm not only talking about book smarts, but life smarts as well.

Working as a Berkeley Social Welfare community, I also would like to increase the involvement of our alumni in charting the future of the school and in mentoring our undergraduate and graduate students in ways that create a pipeline of well-trained, connected social welfare professionals who are poised for leadership in the field. I would also like to see us engage in more active and sustained collaborations with other professional schools and departments on campus to address the most difficult challenges children and families face in the U.S. and globally. In my way of thinking about these issues, interdisciplinary research and practice are synonymous with innovation and generating creative solutions to difficult problems. It can often be game-changing. Lastly, I would like us to create more opportunities for the voices of children to be heard as we consider the factors that most affect their lives. I hope to develop an advisory board of middle- and high-school students who share with us their views on what matters most in their lives.

What do you see as the impact of Berkeley Social Welfare?
In terms of our impact on individuals, as a field and as a profession we and our sister schools of social welfare enable people to live their lives to the fullest possible extent: to stay in your home as long as you can as an elderly person, to keep you out of an institution and living a healthy life if you have mental health issues or other health issues, to enable children and families to really flourish in the face of trauma. We are deeply invested in humans in really important ways; we are here to help people navigate life and improve their quality of life.

In terms of our impact on policy, we're a central cog in the wheel. We're well-poised to help shape the discourse that's going on nationally, and it's only through shaping the discourse that we will see change and cultural change. And I've noticed that people — even policymakers, in some cases — are not well-informed about what the implications of social policy are and how they might be impacting their lives. But we at the School of Social Welfare — as professionals and as caring human beings — are well-poised to inform and lead that discourse and help people to interpret what they're hearing in the media, in policy briefs, and within communities.