Sudhir is preparing for a career in academia—the teaching of college students. But the interaction with his “subjects” produces a far more complex web of teaching and learning, one in which the “subjects” often teach Sudhir about the reality of their lives in the projects. Thus, Sudhir is far from the only teacher in his account, and the people he studies are certainly not the only “learners.”
At the beginning of his tenure in the Robert Taylor Homes, Sudhir admits (privately) to being naïve about the goings-on in the projects. He does not understand, for instance, why younger men might sleep with older women (for food and shelter); why cops might not patrol the projects or CHA employees might not care to help (they do so only when compensated); or why gangs control information so closely (underlings are paid very low wages, compared to gang leaders). To learn more about his surroundings, Sudhir asks questions of JT, Ms. Bailey, Ms. Mae (JT’s mother), and others. But he realizes he learns much more by observing and, when possible legally, by participating.
Thus, “learning” about the Black Kings and the Robert Taylor Homes involves becoming a part of that community. Sudhir teaches the residents of the homes things about their environment – he finds out, for example, more information about what some of C-Note and others’ “side hustles” actually make, and gives this data to Ms. Bailey and JT. But Sudhir is not really the “college professor” or “graduate student” arriving in the projects to pull community members out of poverty. Many well-intentioned, if more naïve, people in Chicago have already tried these methods in the Robert Taylor Homes, as Sudhir notes. Instead, Sudhir “teaches” people about their communities by acting as a conduit for information, as a more or less objective observer who relays to them the things he sees.
Sometimes JT is thankful for this information, or even uses it to his advantage, as when he and Ms. Bailey extort more money from off-the-books businesses in the homes. Other times, Sudhir keeps this information from the gangs, as when T-Bone provides the data that becomes the backbone of Sudhir’s academic research on gang economies. Sudhir and JT, especially, develop a relationship that Sudhir characterizes as not quite a friendship. In truth, this relationship is more like an alternation between student and teacher, with each character filling that role at different times. JT learns about life outside the projects (and joins these experiences with his own, as he, too, went to college). And Sudhir, of course, learns about a part of Chicago that very few people at the university care to know about.
By the end of the book, then, the reader understands the “educational” system, of which Sudhir is a part as a doctoral student, as being simply a component of lived life: a network of teaching and learning throughout the Robert Taylor Homes, wherein the researcher learns as much, or more, from his research subjects than they learn from him. Sudhir becomes a better learner as the book goes on, and JT and Ms. Bailey, especially, become more willing teachers, more open to explaining their lives to Sudhir, and demonstrating for him the ways they engage with and help their community.
Teaching and Learning ThemeTracker
Teaching and Learning Quotes in Gang Leader for a Day
I hadn’t come for the crack; I was here on a different mission. I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and for my research I had taken to hanging out with the Black Kings, the local crack-selling gang.
How do an individual’s preferences develop? Can we predict human behavior? ... The standard mode of answering these questions was to conduct widespread surveys and then use complex mathematical methods to analyze the survey data. ... It was thought that the key to formulating good policy was to first formulate a good scientific study.
Go back to where you came from ... and be more careful when you walk around the city. ... You shouldn’t go around asking them silly-ass questions. ... With people like us, you should hang out, get to know what they do, how they do it. No one is going to answer questions like that. You need to understand how young people live on the streets.
Beer? ... You said I should hang out with folks if I want to know what their life is like.
You always take the sure bet in this game. Nothing can be predicted—not supply, not anything. The [person] who tells you he’s going to have product a year from now is lying. He could be in jail or dead. So take your discount now.
We stepped inside an apartment furnished with couches and a few reclining chairs that faced a big TV. There was a Christian show playing. ... The domestic scene surprised me a bit, for I had read so much about the poverty and danger in Robert Taylor, how children ran around without parents and how drugs had overtaken the community.
And we don’t just fight each other. We have basketball tournaments, softball tournaments, card games. Sometimes it’s just people in the organization who play, but sometimes we find the best people in the building ... so it’s a building thing.
Regulars like me, we hustle to make our money, but we only go with guys we know. We don’t do it full-time, but if we have to feed our kids, we may make a little money on the side.
He [JT] had no real sense of what I would actually be writing—because, in truth, I didn’t know myself. Nor did I know if he’d be upset with me for having seen him beat up C-Note, or if perhaps he’d try to censor me.
I was nervous, to be sure, but not because I was implicating myself in an illegal enterprise. In fact, I hadn’t even really thought about that angle. ... Only later, when I began sharing my experience with my advisers ... did I begin to understand—and adhere to—the reporting requirements for researchers who are privy to criminal conduct.
The next day I would wake up free of the hundreds of obligations and judgments I’d been witness to. But JT wouldn’t. He’d still bear all the burdens of running a successful underground economy...
For now, be careful when you help the women. They’ll take advantage of you, and you won’t know what hit you. And I can’t be there to protect you.
Do you want to write me another essay? Do you want to write about what just happened?
I spent the next few weeks turning the information in my notebooks into statistical tables and graphs that showed how much different hustlers made. I figured that JT would appreciate this data at least as much as my professors would...
The women wrote and spoke openly about their struggles. Each of them had at least a couple of children, which generally meant at least one “baby daddy” who wasn’t in the picture. Each of them had a man in her life who’d been either jailed or killed...
You didn’t have to get mixed up in this shit.
He must have heard that I’d helped drag Price into the lobby. I didn’t say anything. JT slapped my leg, asked if I wanted a Coke, and walked off to the fridge.
You think I don’t know who you [expletive] are? You think we all don’t know what you’re doing? If you want to play with us, you better be real careful. If you like watching, you may get caught.
You need to understand that the Black Kings are not a gang; we are a community organization, responding to people’s needs.
The pages of the ledgers were frayed, and some of the handwriting was hard to decipher, but the raw information was fascinating. For the past four years, T-Bone had been dutifully recording the gang’s revenues ... and expenses.
...perhaps the most unconventional thing I ever did was embrace the idea that I could learn so much, absorb so many lessons, and gain so many experiences at the side of a man who was so far removed from my academic world.