ETHNOGRAPHERS HAVE LONG RECORDED ETHICAL DILEMMAS ENCOUNTERED "OUT IN the field," once they have reached the data collection phase of their project (Burawoy et al., 1991; Guevarra, 2006; Lareau and Schultz, 1996). In an external funding environment in which partnerships and collaboration have become the norm, if not the imperative, it is increasingly important to consider the potential predicaments when a researcher, as a representative of his or her university, partners with a community organization in the pursuit of "engaged scholarship" (Small and Uttal, 2005). Over the past three decades, the pressure to obtain external funding in higher education has intensified. State legislators have continually decreased their budgetary allocations to institutions of higher education, universities have been increasingly privatized, and higher education tuition and fees multiplied, further burdening students and families (Comaroff and Comaroff, 2001; Currie and Newson, 1998; Giroux, 2002; Levy, 1986; State Higher Education Finance, 2009; Supiano, 2012; Yamada, 2012). Moreover, the onset in 2007 of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s left state economies unable to meet their fiscal responsibilities, with education and social services among the first areas to endure severe budget shortages.
Research practitioners of community oral history projects often rely on community volunteers and goodwill to advance the goals of documenting the stories the community wishes to record (Mercier and Buckendorf, 2007). Most nationally based oral history projects rely heavily on federal funding agencies (such as the National Endowment for the Humanities) and on philanthropic and charitable foundations and organizations to obtain the funding necessary to pursue the most labor-intensive and costly methods in the humanities and social sciences. In keeping with conventional social science methods, reports of ethnographic fieldwork typically begin with the actual entry into "the field" in which the subjects of study are located. How a project is conceived, how it is funded (or not), what competing interests are at stake, and which structural opportunities facilitate a project's emergence, I argue, are part of the larger "field" experience. Broadening the field experience to include the processes by which a project is launched and supported may offer insights into contemporary forces at play in the field of knowledge production. It may also provide analytic insights into the subject matter at hand. Whether one is the "kindly" or "honest" ethnographer (Fine, 1993), all should consider the ethical dilemmas that arise in the early stages of a project's planning and funding.
This article outlines the ethico-political dilemmas encountered in the early funding and planning stages of a community oral history project within the context of the university; it also describes how I navigated the challenges and opportunities that came my way. My definition of "ethico-political" comes from Agamben (1998) and Negri (2005), who argue that an ethical situation is a political one and a political situation an ethical one. Issues such as the multiple interests at stake, the contestation yet appropriation of key values, the drive for profit in its various forms, and the use of unethical tactics illuminate underlying tensions and concerns that speak to the power relations that permeate the academic environment and often imbue the subject under study as well.
Launching an Oral History Project Partnership
I became involved with a community oral history project somewhat serendipitously. During a lunch conversation with a Chicano administrator from one of the Maricopa County community colleges, I happened to mention my attendance at the Oral History Summer Institute at Columbia University. Before I knew it, I was asked to meet with a group of individuals who were attempting to collect the stories of former residents of los campos--a group of labor camps that had once existed in the agricultural lands of the western Salt River Valley, now a part of the larger Phoenix Metropolitan Area. My colleague had a personal interest in the project, having spent the first seven years of his childhood living in Camp #52. As a faculty member at Arizona State University's West campus, I was ideally situated to work with members of a west valley community and to merge my interests in oral history and Chicano studies with a local community-based project.
By way of backdrop, before World War I Goodyear Tire & Rubber's presence in the Salt River Valley made the state one of the major producers of cotton for national and international markets (Hill, 2007; Meeks, 2007). From 1916 through 1986, Goodyear Farms (originally Southwest Cotton Company), a subsidiary of Goodyear Tire & Rubber, built five major labor camps to attract and maintain the steady workforce needed for large-scale cotton production (Rodengen, 1997; Schetter, 1976; Smith, 1948). Los campos housed hundreds of workers, predominantly Mexican, and their families, some of whom had been employed by Goodyear Farms for three generations. It also provided accommodations for seasonal workers. In 1986, when Goodyear Farms permanently closed its operations, the last of the camps was closed down, and the remaining elderly residents were moved to a subsidized location (Reynolds, 1986). Over time, the City of Litchfield Park evolved into a predominantly Euro-American, largely master-planned, upscale residential community.
At my initial meeting with three community members I was given a copy of "The Story of a Town--LITCHFIELD PARK," a document considered to be the "official account" of the company town of Litchfield Park (Schetter, 1976). To my dismay, I noted only two brief references to the laborers, largely of Mexican and Native American descent, who contributed to the area's workforce for great part of the twentieth century. The author claimed that the town of Litchfield was a "labor camp established to provide living accommodations for several hundred legally imported aliens and other employees," and that "a workforce of approximately 2,000 men, mostly Mexican Nationals and Native American Indians, was employed" in 1917, when an effort was made to convert Litchfield Ranch into a "major cotton-producing property" (Ibid.: 1, 3-4). Indeed, the town of Litchfield--renamed Litchfield Park--became one of the most prosperous company towns and regions of the Southwest. The scant inclusion and reference to members of these communities immediately cast this research as a social justice project for me, as I committed to assist the community with its efforts to record the memories of former workers and residents of the camps.
Over the course of …