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‘Gang Leader for a Day’ Author to Offer Insights on Underground Economy

In impoverished neighborhoods across the United States, an underground cash economy thrives. It’s an economy in which gang members traffic drugs and firearms, and prostitutes sell their bodies. But it also includes less criminal—though untaxed and unlicensed—businesses, such as in-home daycares and auto-mechanic shops based out of alleys.

The people who offer and partake in these services are in survival mode. It’s the way they make a living, the way they get by.

Sudhir Venkatesh, author of Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets, will discuss the underground economy during a free, public lecture on Wednesday, Nov. 2, at 7 p.m. in the Power Center Ballroom at Duquesne University.

Venkatesh, now the William B. Ransford Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, studied the notorious Robert Taylor Homes public housing project in Chicago’s South Side as a graduate student.

“Venkatesh will be talking about why the underground economy is important to people’s survival,” said Dr. Greg Barnhisel, DU associate professor of English, who helped coordinate the event. “Too often, people of privilege and authority talk about the poor without knowing the situation and really understanding it. Venkatesh’s work allows us to actually understand.”

Many classes across campus—from freshman writing classes to sociology classes and a graduate education class—have been reading Venkatesh’s book.

Gang Leader for a Day is about Venkatesh’s time as a graduate student who learns some of the shortcomings of academic research and how to treat one’s subjects ethically,” Barnhisel explained. “It’s just a really good, vivid story about a young man who observes urban gang life in one of the most crime-ridden housing projects in the United States.”

Venkatesh’s research is particularly compelling because he immersed himself in the community.

“One of the most important things about Venkatesh’s work is that it forces us not to operate on received wisdom and stereotypes about the lives of poor people living in cities,” Barnhisel continued. “This is on-the-ground, first-person research.”

In his film, Dislocation, Venkatesh said, “What I learned is that we have a lot more in common than we think, and those commonalities really go across race divides, ethnic divides and even social class.”

The Robert Taylor Homes have since been demolished and residents relocated. But the importance of his findings still holds significant weight.

“The Occupy Wall Street protests say our economic system is broken,” Barnhisel said. “This makes Venkatesh’s work of particular interest right now because more and more people have to make a living through the underground economy.”

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.