Columbia College in the mid 1960s was not yet coeducational. When asked if it wasn't unusual -if not revolutionary-for a woman to take classes there at the time, she admits, "I suppose it was," but the incendiary proto-feminism of her choice didn't occur to her. "I was very absorbed with and excited about the work," she says simply. She believes her life has been an entirely natural flow from interest to activities, from the years of her marriages, raising children, and looking after the affairs of the household, to breaking the gender barrier at Columbia.
A physics class introduced Dehavenon to the scientific method and "opened up a whole new way of looking at the world, a whole new way of getting at the truth," which resonated with Harris's development of a highly operationalized method of direct observation in anthropological research. His students used videotape, a cutting-edge technology in 1967, to study garbage collectors, Macy's Santa Claus, and visitors' reactions to a particular nude statue in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dehavenon herself videotaped schoolchildren listening to a string quartet to investigate which ones beat time, wriggled, applauded, and talked to each other. In short, she says, "We were having a ball."
Then in 1973, while doing research for her doctoral dissertation, Dehavenon says, "I began to see families I was studying on videotape running out of food." She then watched an unemployed father in East Harlem borrow $10 from his sister and spend three days comparison shopping before buying a turkey. "I remembered my own childhood, growing up in the Depression in Portland, when my sisters and I often went to bed on only bread and milk."
Dehavenon began becoming "humanly involved" in the daily lives of the families she studied. In 1973 she became more directly involved and helped found the East Harlem Interfaith Welfare Committee, a coalition of religious voluntary agencies that did welfare advocacy. These agencies began collecting information on emerging hunger conditions, with Dehavenon as the researcher.
Never stopped being a scientistDehavenon's record of almost three decades documenting the effects of public policy on low-income New Yorkers might suggest an overriding passion for doing good works, but she has never stopped being a scientist. "This was not a conscious decision," she maintains. "Some people think of me as an advocate; on the other hand, I always remind them anyone can use my findings and replicate them using the same data operations. They are generally thought to be good science, and lots of people have used them." Advocates used Dehavenon's research in the early 1980s to work successfully for increases in welfare grants; in the late 1980s the city used her findings to make changes that halted welfare churning. They have been used again in the two long-term lawsuits Legal Aid brought on behalf of homeless families and in which the New York State Supreme Court appointed Dehavenon as an expert witness.
However, she stresses her work as an anthropologist is not to advocate for a particular set of policies, but to document on-the-ground facts. "If you directly observe and speak to people, you begin to know what their experiences really are. The class and racial segregation in our culture separates most of us from the experiences of poor people. I would like many more of us to contemplate what it is like to sleep three or more to a bedroom or on the floor and what it would be like to raise one's own children in these circumstances, in the world's wealthiest, most advanced nation."