Faculty Profile: David Knight

David Knight, Postdoctoral Research Scholar and Incoming Assistant Professor of Sociology, spoke with us about his research and about being part of the inaugural Race and Racism Scholarship cluster hire.

Photo of David Knight sitting in front of trees wearing a striped shirt

Can you describe your background and upbringing, especially as they influenced your studies?

That's a great question. I'm from just outside of New Orleans, Louisiana, with Angola State Penitentiary a couple of hours away. My extended family is all from Mississippi. My grandparents are both from the Delta, not far from Parchman Prison. So, in a sense, prison was regularly part of the landscape. As a child, you notice things but don’t have the language to explain or make sense of them. That was the case with me. I was a focused artist and writer, and a voracious reader, growing up. Those things were my refuge. Over time, I started making more concrete connections between what I was personally witnessing and experiencing and the larger social, historical, and political forces shaping those processes. Looking back, for instance, at the essays I wrote in high school—which were always focused on social and political issues related to justice—I can see now how I was trying to make sense of those profound issues through my writing.

As you went on to college, how did that develop and deepen and lead you to sociology?

I went to Dartmouth College as an undergraduate. I was a history major and focused specifically on Black freedom movements. For my senior project, I interviewed dozens of former volunteers in the Mississippi Summer Project to more deeply understand how quotidian aspects of their experiences teaching youth and doing voter registration during that time influenced their long run organizing and activism. I also worked a great deal with young people in local mentoring and youth development programs—for instance, with a high school in Boston, Massachusetts, and with young people in the Dominican Republic who were the children of immigrants who had been denied rights of citizenship because they were Haitian. I also worked with and learned a great deal alongside young people in the townships of Cape Town, South Africa, regarding issues of HIV/AIDS peer education. Across these global experiences I was able to witness how education intersects with many other issues and how it can be a space for liberation and social change. So I became a teacher after graduating from college and taught in San Francisco and then in Boston.

"Over time, I started making more concrete connections between what I was personally witnessing and experiencing and the larger social, historical, and political forces shaping those processes."

I trained as a history/humanities teacher and then became a special education teacher. During that time, I was very engaged in advocacy and movement work around educational justice and racial justice in public education. I was in my mid-20s. My public engagement prompted me to go back to some of the things that I had written as a student in university, and I started publishing those things, writing op-eds and peer-reviewed journal articles, and then realizing that there were all these questions that I wanted to answer and that social research and theory could help me to answer those questions. So that was the spark that compelled me to think about applying for a PhD.

When I was writing my senior project in college, my advisor, the amazing Annelise Orleck, suggested that I consider a PhD in history, and I didn’t know what to make of the idea at that time. No one in my family had a PhD, and I didn't yet have a sense of what one could do with a PhD, of many dynamic things one could do as a professor, as a scholar and teacher. Interestingly, it was the constructive dynamic between my public engagement and my writing that opened my mind to such possibilities. That led me to the University of Chicago for my PhD.

So much of how I think and what I have done is deeply sociological. My first sociology course was with the brilliant Deborah King. The course was on deviance and social control, subject matter very related to issues of incarceration. From there my formal engagement with and in sociology continued to deepen.

What are you working on right now?

I'm working on a few projects. One is a book project that examines political life and movement work among those with lived experience of the prison system and how political action and political movements emerge among those who have this experience. I use different tools to answer these questions, from interviews to field work to archival work.

I am also collaborating on a project researching the creation of new institutions or initiatives that have been established over the past several years to displace the harms that reverberate from a police-centric approach to addressing community concerns. Many, though not all, of these new initiatives were created following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and following movement calls for more life-affirming institutions to be created. The team of which I am part is engaging with diverse cities to get a multidimensional view into these new institutions, their design, the barriers to change, and their potential impacts.

"[My current project] examines political life among those who are incarcerated today and how political action and political movements emerge among those who are in prison."

You're going to be moving from Chicago to New York: does that physical move represent anything for you whether professionally or personally, or in your research?

I have wanted to move to New York City for some time. I'm very excited about it and am also really looking forward to the possible connections that I can be part of across New York City and Chicago. These are two cities where so much amazing work is happening around undoing the carceral state. The possibility of supporting that work in New York City is very humbling to me as someone who lived in Chicago and worked on similar issues there. I also think that there is great possibility for co-learning across these two contexts, and that learning has been happening; I know people have a hunger for deepening these connections.

What excites you about coming to Columbia and being part of the inaugural Race and Racism cluster hire?

I focus on the social, political, and health effects of incarceration and how bottom-up movements seek to undo the carceral system and its impacts. There are few universities that match Columbia in terms of the critical mass of scholars, organizers, and practitioners who are working on such topics—and who are doing so using many different lenses—whether it's legal, historical, or through the arts. I am someone who loves to learn beyond my own specific focus area, and I love the community of people that exists at and around Columbia.

And then with the collective hiring being done—and community that's being built—there is a real through-line in terms of the study of inequality, the study of social change, and the possibilities for how to not just reduce inequity, but also to produce more racially equitable lived conditions. I greatly value that principle and vision and appreciate that those of us who are in this collective hiring cycle are coming out of anthropology and visual arts and social work and political science and sociology. I think it is quite important to have cross-disciplinary perspectives, to share larger interests and programs of work focused on documenting inequity and also how more just conditions can be created for everyone.