It's a tale of two cities, but the similarity with Charles Dickens' novel about London and Paris ends there.
For Kristine Kilanski '07, the two "cities" are really two perspectives on Austin, Texas. To the outside world, Austin is a bustling, hip, fast-growing, economically strong city. But, in its rapid growth, the city has left behind some of its residents, said Kilanski, many of whom work in the service industries that contributed to the city's metamorphosis.
To bring their stories to life, Kilanski, along with classmates and faculty member Javier Auyero at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote a book, "Invisible Austin: Life and Labor in an American City," published in August 2015.
The book emerged from a class on poverty and marginality that Kilanski took as part of her Ph.D. program. The class readings did a good job of outlining the conditions that led to poverty, she said, but the students felt that there was a calling for a more nuanced portrait of the people who experience poverty. The class began to think about collecting the stories of their fellow Austinites, many of whom they knew were struggling to stay afloat amid a dramatic rise in the region's cost of living.
Even the students had felt some economic pressure, as rents in the city rose dramatically from when they began their graduate programs. "We were motivated by what was going on outside our doorsteps," Kilanski said.
Twelve students contributed to the book — 11 of them writing a chapter about an individual living in Austin who matched the area of sociology in which they specialized. Kilanski interviewed a woman named Clarissa, who became homeless after an accident and injuries prevented her from being able to find work again.
Kilanski said her first meeting with Clarissa was not what she expected. Clarissa suggested meeting at the 1886 Café, in an upscale hotel. When Clarissa arrived, she was well dressed. Her first comment "was about how she felt being approached for money on the street by homeless people," said Kilanski.
They talked for five hours, and then Kilanski drove her to her "home" in a storage unit. Kilanski continued to interact with Clarissa, learning more about her story and gathering information for her contribution to the book.
The experience taught Kilanski how our expectations of homeless people can be wrong. "We deal in stereotypes," she said. Clarissa didn't fit that preconceived mold. She was from a middle-class background, had been married and had her own small business. "Clarissa loved what she had done in the food service business. After her accident, she tried to go back to work, but given her age and injuries, she had trouble maintaining what she loved."
When the group began the book project, they tried to be realistic about its prospects for publication. "We even thought of using the sociology department's printer" to make copies, Kilanski said. They decided to go ahead with the project because "it's important work."
At a book launch party at a local Austin bookstore, there was standing room only. Kilanski said others wanted to hear the personal stories, and they "were able to admit there was a problem," with rising inequality in the city.
Publisher's Weekly named "Invisible Austin" one of its books of the week, calling it "lucid and empathetic." The reviewer said the "insightful portraits reveal how life histories are intertwined with political and economic forces beyond any individual's control."
Kirkus Reviews called it a "scholarly study conducted with dignity and thoroughness."
Now living in California, Kilanski has begun a two-year post-doctoral fellowship at The Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, where she continues to conduct and publish sociological research on gender, work and poverty. Her goal is to teach and conduct research at a university.
She traces much of what she has accomplished to her time at Washington and Lee. Following her brother, Bryan Early '04, to the Lexington campus, she had only a vague idea that she wanted to study people. A one-hour conversation with David Novak, professor of sociology, during a student fair, convinced her to register for a sociology course.
"I found my intellectual home — people who cared about inequality and wanted to do something about it," she said.
In the summer of 2005, Kilanski participated in the Shepherd Program for the Interdisciplinary Study of Poverty and Human Capability. She spent the summer in New York City, where she worked for a nonprofit organization that provided services to women who were either homeless or had recently left the criminal justice system. She lived in a house with some of the women and the nuns who oversaw the organization.
"It was an incredibly eye-opening experience to see the level of economic and racial and gender inequality," she said. "The experience was fundamentally life-changing."
Other faculty who mentored and influenced her included Jonathan Eastwood, who "made me love sociological methods," and Leslie Cintron, for whom she worked on a project researching childcare options in Lexington.
Married to W&L graduate Matthew Kilanski '06, she remains motivated to change the world. "I care so deeply about the world around me," she said. "I've been given so many opportunities, and with that comes deep responsibility to make the world a better place and to expand opportunities for others."
- by Linda Evans