ATLANTA — LaShawnDa Pittman-Gay grew up poor, and she was determined during her time as a Georgia State undergraduate to make a difference among low-income African-American communities. While at GSU, she volunteered for countless organizations, from Hosea Feed the Hungry and Homeless to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Now, she’s returned to Georgia State after having earned her doctorate from Northwestern University to take a new role – putting her determination into academic research to better understand African-American grandmothers who care for their grandchildren and the many complexities facing family members in such a situation.
“What I’ve been trying to capture in my work are the complex issues involving skipped-generational households,” Pittman-Gay said. “There are many issues as to why primary care has broken down around the parent, and there are many decisions that a grandparent must make to take care of the children.”
Pittman-Gay is a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Minority Research Fellow – the first NSF fellow GSU’s Department of Sociology has had. She’s collaborating with her GSU sponsoring scientist, Deirdre Oakley, an associate professor of sociology who is working on a multidisciplinary project investigating those who were relocated from the former traditional public housing projects in Atlanta.
“It’s been great collaborating with Dr. Pittman-Gay because she brings a set of ethnographic skills that I don’t have – I’m learning a lot,” says Oakley.
To Pittman-Gay, being able to conduct qualitative research – listening to the stories of grandparents in-depth – has been key to pursing the learning that she enjoys. It involves sitting down and listening to the stories of grandparents and the many struggles they face, as well as how they may find rewards in the midst of strife.
“To be the person to bring these stories to students, academia and policy makers, I feel like a bridge in giving voice to these populations so that their concerns are made known,” she said.
Pittman-Gay worked on her dissertation about grandmothers raising grandchildren in inner-city Chicago, and learned the myriad of obstacles that grandparents raising grandchildren face.
Many never expected to be responsible for raising kids at an older age, she said. The grandmothers Pittman-Gay studied had a median age of 52, with the oldest being age 83. Some had to come out of retirement and go back into the workforce, sometimes working multiple jobs. A third of the grandparents were raising grandchildren on disability payments alone.
Many have trouble meeting qualifications for aid and social services, and don’t receive them.
“There are many barriers to services,” Pittman-Gay said. “It can sometimes be about as arbitrary as you can get. Yet, they say they wouldn’t do anything else.”
After all, without a loving grandparent’s help, many of these children whose parents cannot take care of them would fall into state custody. And having a grandchild around can help make life brighter for a grandparent, she said.
“Many of them spoke about how important their grandkids are,” Pittman-Gay said. “For older grandparents, they appreciate the companionship. Some had experienced abuse earlier in life, and raising a grandchild is the most intimacy they’ve ever experienced. One said that their grandkid is a reason to get up in the morning.”
Georgia State is also home to efforts to study and support grandmothers who are raising their grandchildren. Since 1995, Project Healthy Grandparents has served as a resource for grandparents raising grandchildren, assisting them in finding needed help as they take on the task.
Additionally, the university hosts the National Center on Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, which serves as a resource for researchers, practitioners and policy makers to understand the complexities of grandparent-headed families and to make better public policies.
Pittman-Gay is looking not only to study grandparents raising grandchildren in the city, but to also extend her research to rural areas. She’s also trying to capture health and health disparities in order to understand the stresses grandparents raising grandchildren face, as well as possible variations between different demographic groups.
Pittman-Gay is inspired by the grandmothers she’s met during her interviews as part of her research, hearing their stories of survival and perseverance.
“To give a voice to these populations makes me very happy,” she said. “Whenever I have a down day, I read the transcripts of those interviews. I’m still amazed that I’m able to do this and to have followed my bliss.”
To read more about Georgia State’s Department of Sociology, visit www.gsu.edu/sociology. To learn more about Project Healthy Grandparents, visit http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwalh. To learn more about the National Center on Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, visit http://chhs.gsu.edu/nationalcenter.
Feb. 27, 2012