Anna Lou Dehavenon '48 with research assistant German Tejeda
"I never started out to do good," insists anthropologist Anna Lou Dehavenon '48. "My primary responsibility was to good research, not advocacy." Nevertheless, as the project director of the Action Research Project on Hunger, Homelessness, and Family Health, Dehavenon has worked tirelessly for more than two decades to document the effects of governmental policies on poor families in New York City. "When Cardinal O'Connor read my 1996 report," Dehavenon says, "he told reporters that `this report can make you cry.' And that's exactly what I hoped, in some cases, to do, to make people feel like crying."
As the phrase "action research" might suggest, Dehavenon harnesses her model of direct observation and rigorous documentation to social activism that is an inspiration to those who despair of the seeming irrelevance of much social science research.
Dehavenon's work is difficult to appreciate fully unless you see her at work interviewing homeless families, as I did one summer night at the EAU. The EAU is New York City's Emergency Assistance Unit, a squat, unappealing building one subway stop out of Harlem in the South Bronx. It's the entry point for destitute families with children seeking the emergency shelter mandated for them by the New York State constitution. On the night I was there, 130 anxious, confused families-roughly 400 people-were packed into three rooms. The last things many of these families saw before entering were the children's foster care center across the street and a hulking gray jail a few blocks down.