A&S doctoral student receives P.E.O. Scholar Award

Shaonta’ E. Allen will use the award to complete and publish research on Black Christian millennials

By Chris Pasion

In sociology, there is debate over how involved a sociologist should be with the group they are studying. Historical approaches to sociology mimicked the scientific method, meaning the researcher was required to have a level of separation from the researched in order to maintain objectivity. But there is also an intimate understanding that can come only from situations where the researcher is close to the group they are studying. Shaonta’ E. Allen, a sociology PhD candidate, takes this approach to her dissertation project. “There is inherent validity in being close to what you study,” she says, “because there’s a certain level of insight that you have when you are actually a part of the things you are studying, which is actually beneficial and powerful.”

Shaonta’ was recently awarded a P.E.O. Scholar Award by P.E.O. International for her community-based research on the Black Christian community. This award recognizes exemplary women for making significant contributions to their given fields. The award enables Shaonta’ to fully focus her efforts on completing her dissertation and degree. She says the P.E.O. Scholar Award “has been such a blessing, because it allows me to dedicate this current academic year to writing my dissertation.”

Her dissertation project, Unapologetically Black and Unashamedly Christian: Exploring the Complexities of Black Millennial Christianity, looks “specifically at how religion plays a role in how young Black Christians are making sense of racial inequality and how they go about responding to some of the racist conditions that they may experience,” she says. The church has a long legacy of facilitating political mobilization and activism. But with church numbers seemingly in decline among the millennial generation, what role does the church play in the current social climate and the Black Lives Matter movement?

Millennials have broadly become disenfranchised with institutions such as politics and religion, but Shaonta’ is wary of those who generalize young peoples’ relationship with the church. “If you look at just the broad data on millennials, it’s like, ‘Oh, nobody is going to church anymore — the churches are empty.’ But we know within the Black community that religion has been a very strong aspect of the Black identity in America,” Shaonta’ says. “It does a disservice to not look at a particular cohort to see if something different is going on there. My study does that.”

Shaonta’ conducts her research with a community-based methodology. “Community-based research is very powerful because it allows the members of the community to have a stake in what is going on in the spaces that they navigate,” she says. For her dissertation project, she interviewed 65 Black Christian millennials to collect their thoughts on their identity and how it informs their response to racial inequality. Shaonta’ has found that many young people in the community, while critical of some of the traditional aspects and practices of the religion, still lean heavily on their Christian faith — especially in times of social unrest. Her research has found that the church still plays an important and active role in guiding activism efforts. Recent demonstrations in the Black Lives Matter movement such as the Men in Suits marches, which echo the respectability politics of social movements in the past, are one way this can be seen.

One of the interesting exercises in Shaonta’s research study is that her respondents had to consider which aspect of their identity was most dominant in their day-to-day lives. Which informs their thoughts and actions more, their race or their faith? Are these aspects intimately intertwined or separate? “They definitely occupy this interesting social location where they had to reconcile with these tensions. That was a really big finding in my study,” she says. “Even though, spiritually, Christianity is their dominant identity and has the most bearing on what they do and how they do it, they also know that they have to be responsive to their conditions and, as they’re navigating society, people perceive them as Black first.” It was important for her participants “to find a way to cultivate a Black Christian identity.”

“I want other Black Christian millennials to know that there are other people out here who are using our faith to inspire our resistance to racial inequality,” Shaonta’ says. She shares that one of her ultimate goals is to inspire other people who feel that the research speaks to them and their lived experience. In addition, she wants to write for the doubters, who “don’t think it’s possible to identify as Christian while truly working toward Black liberation.” She hopes her research will also help church leadership in understanding how best to serve the communities they lead. “We need to stop tap dancing around mental health. We need to make sure we’re treating people of all walks of life, sexual orientations and gender identities equally, and to make sure that the doors of the church are open for them.”

Shaonta’ plans to publish her research findings as a book when it’s all said and done. She currently is releasing it in the form of peer-reviewed articles, which can be found in the research section of her website.