An Academic Advocate: David Brunsma, researcher and rights campaigner, believes sociology can change the world.

Photo of David Brunsma

Knowledge and Power David Brunsma has never been interested in knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but rather the good that knowledge might do. Photo by Rob Hill.

By Anita Neal Harrison

He grew up a red-headed Puerto Rican Mennonite from the American Midwest. David Brunsma found it confusing, too.

When he would call himself Puerto Rican—his heritage on his mother’s side—people would “correct” him. “But look at me, right?” Brunsma says, “I mean, I’ve got red hair and freckles, and when I grew up, people called me Carrot Top. The Puerto Rican part has never been validated in interactions with people. Even when I spoke Spanish, people were like, ‘Why is Dave speaking Spanish?’ ”

And while Brunsma took the confusion of acquaintances in stride, their perplexity did instill in him a certain comfort with ambiguity. It also suggested a potential career. “I knew growing up that things were not always as they seemed,” he said. “Sociology provided me with the tools to make sense of that.”

These days Brunsma, an associate professor of sociology and the interim director of MU’s Black Studies Program, is using the tools of sociology to help other people define their own realities. Part of this involves working with fellow sociologists Keri Iyall Smith, assistant professor at Boston’s Suffolk University, and Brian Gran, associate professor at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, on a project they hope will “expand the U.S. conversation on human rights.” The goal is to produce a three-volume Handbook of Sociology and Human Rights that, according to Brunsma, will point sociologists toward a more rights-oriented view of their work.

“We’re asking scholars to put on a different lens,” Brunsma explains. “Instead of just documenting the reality of gender inequality, for example, what would it mean to see gender equality as a fundamental human right? If we start from that position, what kind of questions would we ask? What kind of studies would we design, and what kind of findings might we find?”

Brunsma first got excited about using sociology to explore different perspectives while a student at Indiana’s Goshen College, a Christian liberal arts institution founded by Mennonites in 1894. His beloved maternal grandfather, a Mennonite minister and conscientious objector who was “constantly talking about peace and equality,” thought Goshen would be a perfect fit for his idealistic grandson. He was right. One particularly instructive experience came during a 13-week study-abroad trip in a Costa Rican village housing Nicaraguan refugees.

“That culture shock, what that was really for me was a way of stepping out of my own culture, my own country, my own context, my own ways of being, seeing and believing, and coming into contact with these other people,” Brunsma says.

Connecting with people from diverse communities is still, Brunsma says, one of the most fulfilling aspects of his work—one he recently found himself missing. After completing his master’s degree and doctorate at the University of Notre Dame, he spent six years as a faculty member at the University of Alabama-Huntsville. He came to MU in 2004.

As sometimes happens in academe, Brunsma found that as his career moved forward he felt increasingly disconnected from the very communities he had hoped to serve. It was, he says, as if he were producing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, rather than for the good it could do.

“Academia doesn’t always value work that crosses that line between scholarship and activism,” he says, adding that this is especially true when questions of tenure are involved. Brunsma hopes the human rights handbook will help change that, at least for sociologists. The first book in the series will be a reference “by and for scholars” on the state of human rights research. The second will be a textbook for college students. The third, he says, will promote a more activist approach to sociology practice, one emphasizing collaborative efforts between sociologists and those working to promote human rights “on the ground.”

“By the time we get to that third book, we’ll have worked through the academic ideas and theories,” says Brunsma. The third volume’s hands-on approach will be informed by Brunsma’s work with Sociologists Without Borders, an international advocacy organization committed to the principle that everyone has a right to political freedom, legal protection, socioeconomic security, and self-determination.

“We know people have been wrestling with these issues out in their communities, Brunsma says. “From them, we can learn—how do you live human rights instead of theorize about it?”

One way, he says, is through embracing the idea of “co-constructed knowledge,” something Brunsma values as much at home as at work. He and his wife, Rachel, a teacher in a local Montessori school, have two boys at home, Thomas, 11, and Henry, 8. (Brunsma also has a 13-year-old daughter, Karina, from a previous marriage.) Henry attends a Montessori school. Thomas just chose to become a homeschooler.

“I told him, ‘It’s your education. What do you want out of it?’ He said, ‘I want the truth,’” Brunsma recalls with a shrug. “I told him, ‘I can’t promise you that, but I can promise you the chance to look for truth on your own.’ And that’s a part of this, too; people need to be free to discover their own world.”

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