July 24 , 2006
A few minutes with MiLO
BY Eric rangus
Michael Leo Owens’ career as a political scientist began when he was a teenager growing up in New York. He volunteered to help out with the campaign of a local minister who was running for Congress (and would eventually be elected). He knocked on doors, helped out with parties, sharpened pencils—perfect work for a high schooler. He also got an inside view of a couple of fascinating American institutions.
“For me there was never a blurring of the separation of church and state,” said Owens, assistant professor of political science. “There wasn’t a solid wall at all. It was more like a string or something. You could easily go under it or get over it.”
Owens’ first book, which is under advance contract with the University of Chicago Press, carries the provocative title, God and Government in the Ghetto: The Politics of Church-State Collaboration in American Cities. The book is an investigation into the political role of black churches.
“When we think about African American churches being active in politics on behalf of the poor we always think of them in terms of organizing people to engage in protest or electoral action,” said Owens, who grew up with knowledge of several religions because of his spiritually diverse family.
“But since the War on Poverty, there has been a small but growing number of churches that have believed a way to complement those two approaches is working directly with government to develop and design programs and deliver services on behalf of the state,” he said.
Owens’ next avenue of research is with a group of people—ex-prisoners attempting to re-enter society—he readily admits probably receive the least amount of sympathy than any other, which makes the work not only interesting and challenging but intellectually enriching.
Owens’ interest in the subject was piqued in April 2000 when he took a tour of a federal detention center in New York. His sister was a psychologist there. (She is now a deputy warden of a federal penitentiary.)
His first impression was surprise. The place was much quieter than he was led to believe. Watch most any television or movie set in a prison and quiet is pretty difficult to find. Owens asked a guard why and was told the inmates were watching television. They were using earphones, which minimized the noise. Owens’ next question was seemingly innocent.
“Who decides what they watch?”
“They do,” was the answer. Representatives from the prison population get together and determine what shows which groups are going to watch during which hour, the guard continued.
“That sounds pretty democratic to me,” Owens said.
From that point on, Owens knew exactly what he wanted his second book to be.
“That’s how I started thinking of this idea of Prisoners of Democracy,” Owens said, listing the working title for his next book, which carries the subtitle The Civic Identity and Reintegration of Formerly Incarcerated People.
“You can’t necessarily escape democracy,” he said. “Yes, this is an authoritarian institution, but in order for it to function, you still have to have spaces where people are allowed to make choices, function like citizens and represent themselves. In the case of prison, deciding what you want to watch on television is a political choice. You have to come to some sort of agreement and consensus with those around you.”
Outside the office, Owens has a variety of interests—ranging from travel to a deeply held desire to become a barbecue judge—but perhaps his favorite is volunteering with a local organization called “Adopt-a-Grandparent.”
The program is pretty self-explanatory. A demographic reciprocal of Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Adopt-A-Grandparent brings together a senior citizen (who may or may not have extended family) who spends a lot of time on their own with younger, adoptive “grandchildren.”
Owens and his wife Karen have participated in the program for five years. Their first grandparent was Irma Patterson, who lived to be 94 years old before passing away a couple years ago. Owens recalls a visit they took to the Fox Theatre. Ms. Patterson, an African American and a resident of South Atlanta, had been to the Fox during segregation so she entered through a side door and sat in the balcony.
“When we took her,” Owens said, “she walked in through the front door. I have never seen such a look of joy and amazement on someone’s face in all my life. It was just incredible. She explained to us how she never thought she would ever go through the front door of the Fox.”
After Ms. Patterson passed away, the Owenses adopted Herbert Borges, now 83, a white, Jewish gentleman whose daughter signed him up for the program. Owens and his wife visit with him once a week, sometimes all day, and when they all go out the situations are interesting—bordering on the comical.
“People can’t believe we are together, but that speaks volumes to how we understand race and relationships in America,” Owens said. “One would think that it shouldn’t be odd for an elderly Jewish man to be out in public with a young African American male and female. You shouldn’t even be paying attention to that. They look at my wife and I. Then they look at Herbert. Then they look back at my wife and I, and ask ‘table for two?’
“People ask us how we know each other, and I say, ‘he’s my grandfather.’” With that, Owens tilted his head back and laughed loudly. Owens’ easygoing personality is tough to miss. For instance, he signs emails and is generally known by students as MiLO, an acronym of his name (Owens uses his middle name for several reasons, one of them is to differentiate himself from Michael Owens, associate professor of psychology and behavioral science.)
In conversation Owens referred to Mr. Borges as either “Herbert” or “my grandfather,” a telling insight into the importance—as well as the ease—Owens attaches to the relationship.
“Then I explain the program and it gets promoted,” Owens continued. “That’s my number one thing.”