Homeless Theory and Research Collaboration: A Tribute to Nikita Price - Metropolitics
Collaborations between academics, activists and organizers lie at the core of many powerful community-based projects. Sometimes such partnerships serve as a means to an end for actors on both ends of the equation: community organizers may need to add academic research to their project, while scholars work with community activists to complete a research project, which requires the voices and experiences of those on the ground. But sometimes these collaborations become more than their intended outcomes: the collaboration takes on a life of its own. It becomes a true partnership, creating an ethos of solidarity that moves well beyond any discrete project or action. To steward such collaborations (while successfully winning campaigns and mobilizing the community) requires patience, vision, and bravery. Nikita Price, the longtime Civil Rights Organizer at Picture the Homeless (PTH) who passed away suddenly on May 21, 2020, had all of those qualities in droves. Nikita worked with homeless folks, students, politicians and organizers alike to transform the model through which researchers and homeless organizers traditionally work together. Each of us worked closely with Nikita during our time in graduate school, and his impact on our lives, work, and approach to seeking justice through participatory action-research cannot be overstated. By reflecting on his impact here, we hope to honor his legacy as an intellectual while showcasing his unique approach to participatory action-research.
When academics first visited Picture the Homeless, either as students or as faculty, Nikita welcomed them with his characteristic greeting: “What’s up, family?” This radical welcoming always changed the terms of the conversation. Nikita never accepted the idea that there were “insides” or “outsides” to movements for justice or the intellectual work that accompanies boots-on-the-ground action. And because PTH functioned as a member-led organization, Nikita took active steps to ensure that researchers understood that the knowledge and theories emanating from PTH—of which there were many—were clearly understood as “homeless knowledge.” In the framing that Nikita taught us, “homeless knowledge” was not confined to the realm of experience, such as the knowledge derived from the material experience of sleeping on the street or living in the shelters. Instead, Nikita knew that to transform paternalistic systems that looked down on homeless people—systems that extended well beyond policing and housing and into the walls of the academy itself—we needed to understand PTH members’ ideas as theorists in their own right. Eric remembers this framework hitting him in a meeting that he and Nikita facilitated where members explicitly addressed the question of why police targeted people for “looking homeless.” After a long co‑facilitated conversation, during which Eric remembers taking about 30 pages of notes, Nikita turned to him and, with his characteristic sly smile, said, “So, Eric, when you write your book, remember: homeless people thought of this!” This was more than a credit-where-credit-is-due formulation; it was also a reflection of Nikita’s unique understanding of the role of movement scholars. He didn’t believe that our job was to theorize what other people said, nor did he think that academics should provide data and get out of the way. For Nikita, the relationship between scholarship and activism was a fully two-way street, filled with opportunities for learning together and amplifying ideas that altered power relations and structural inequalities.