How I Work: Social Work Research Edition

How I Work: Social Work Research Edition is a new series of interviews the SSWR Doctoral Student Task Force will be sharing. This series and the questions have been inspired and adapted from Lifehacker's How I Work series (thank you Lifehacker!). We will be briefly interviewing individuals in the social work research arena about how they go about their work. We hope these interviews will give new insights to social work doctoral students and provide them a window into the lives of professors, researchers, deans, etc. We welcome recommendations of individuals to interview. Head over to the Facebook page to post your recommendations.


Dr. Amy Ritterbusch

Dr. Amy Ritterbusch

By: Dominique Mikell, MA, doctoral student at UCLA – Luskin School of Public Affairs, Department of Social Welfare

Dr. Amy Ritterbusch is an Assistant Professor at the University of California Los Angeles Luskin School of Public AffairsDepartment of Social Welfare. She has led social justice-oriented participatory action research initiatives with street-connected communities in Colombia for the last decade and recently in Uganda. Her work involves the documentation of human rights violations and forms of violence exerted against homeless individuals, sex workers, drug users and street-connected children and youth, and subsequent community-driven mobilizations to catalyze social justice outcomes within these communities. Throughout her research and teaching career, she has explored different approaches to engaging students and community leaders through critical and responsible interaction between the classroom and street spaces in Colombia and Uganda through the lens of social justice-oriented PAR. Her research has been funded by the Open Society Foundations, the National Science Foundation, the Fulbright U.S. Program and other networks promoting global social justice.

I interviewed Dr. Amy Ritterbusch for our series because with summer around the corner, I believed it was the perfect time to reflect on how I can work with more passion and efficiency in the upcoming year. I was confident that Dr. Ritterbusch would be able to share insightful knowledge on both topics. Although new to the UCLA Luskin community, Dr. Ritterbusch has quickly been identified as not only an impactful scholar but also as a reflexive and powerful advocate for social justice in everything she does.  

Dominique: What is one word that best describes how you work? 

Dr. Ritterbusch: Sentipensamiento - I work from a space in which thinking and feeling collide. When I try to write or when I choose a research topic, I try to channel what I am the most passionate about in that moment. That is the way I have tried to work throughout my whole career. The term sentipensar links to the participatory action research (PAR) principle of simultaneously thinking and feeling from the heart which was described by Fals Borda. You think, and you analyze as you are feeling and as you are acting for social change. I understand PAR and a sentipensante ethos as my life philosophy, that is the way that I work, I teach, and I write. Sentipensante activists catalyze certain actions for social change and the idea of sentipensar does not emerge directly from social theory but rather from fishermen on the Atlantic coast of Colombia who explained to Fals Borda what gets them through the struggles of daily life en comunidades ribereñas. The etymology of the word goes back to social movements in the 60s and 70s in Latin America. This life philosophy resists ivory tower theorizing and draws its strength from social movements in the global South.  

I believe in an academy that theorizes and works for social change at the intimate scale of the body. At the street level. At the scale where we are moved by what we want to change in the world. That is what these fishermen on the Atlantic Coast said to Fals Borda, a Colombian sociologist and PAR theorist, and to Eduardo Galeano, a Uruguayan journalist and radical leader of thought who also met these fishermen during his travels. Eduardo Galeano set forth important literary work on social movements and decolonial, anti-capitalist resistance in Latin America, such as the Open Veins of Latin America(Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina),’ which, for me, visualizes the roar of social movements in Latin America. In this piece, he talks about the deaths, injustices, disappearances, incarcerations, forced displacements and the domination of elitist power structures through the metaphor of open veins. My work is also informed by feminist ethnographic thought such as the work of Ruth Behar, who discusses the practice of vulnerable writing and vulnerable observation, two terms that should present as a counter to classic armchair ethnographic work in The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology that Breaks Your Heart.  I read these pieces when working on my dissertation and they have shaped the daily movement of my feeling-thinking scholarship. Ruth Behar argues that you can’t observe from a distance. One of the lines I most love from Ruth Behar’s book is that she says vulnerability is about wearing your heart on your sleeve. So, when you write, if you can imagine writing with your heart on your sleeve, doing research with your heart on your sleeve, forming relationships for social justice movement with your arm on your sleeve. 

Dominique: What is your background? How you did you become a social work researcher? 

Dr. Ritterbusch: I am drawn to social work through my understanding of what a participatory ethics and radical research praxis entails. While my interest in the geopolitics of space and the spatiality of collective work and social movements led me to radical and feminist geography, I also am committed to an engaged scholarship that radicalizes and decolonizes and pushes beyond traditional academic dissemination practices and toward radical, community-engaged pedagogies and research praxis. 

Dominique: What does a typical work day look like for you? 

Dr. Ritterbusch: I bike to work and once I get here, I do something to get motivated. Sometimes I read, but often I listen to music to get to a feeling-thinking place of inspiration. Artists like Lauryn Hill, Herencia de Timbiquí, or ChocQuibTown. Then I move into either a space of preparing for teaching, reviewing student work or finding refuge in writing and research. I listen to music or reading something to channel my productive rage about the current state of injustices surrounding us, where I can write about these injustices, violence and exclusions with my heart on my sleeve. Then I try to write until I get interrupted.  I really like getting interrupted. I love contact with students because it is so energizing. 

Dominique: What is your best time-saving short cut in your role as a social work researcher? 

Dr. Ritterbusch:My accountability group helps me stay focused and saves time. It is an online group of scholars who know each other personally and who have created a shared excel sheet in which we share quarterly priorities. At the end of each day we report what was and was not accomplished and plan for the next day.  Shout out to Lindsay Mayka for leading and energizing this space! It is really helpful because within that document there is a weekly goal setting system and a daily goal setting system. 

Dominique: How do you keep track of what you need to get done? 

Dr. Ritterbusch:So, my accountability group helps me keep track of things that I have accomplished. In our shared excel sheet we have cells that are for quarterly, weekly and daily goals. So, the way it is broken down you think about the big goals for the academic year, then you break it down into months, then weeks, then days and you must fill all of that out in the shared excel sheet. Then when you get to cross things out it feels so good. For the immediate things that I don’t want to forget or the ideas that I just want to have visually in my office, I have sticky notes. I am not sure the number of sticky notes I have is healthy, but that is what I do for now (pre-tenure). 

Dominique: What is your least favorite work and how do you deal with it? 

Dr. Ritterbusch: Dealing with the exploitative legacies of researchers who have rampaged communities throughout the world. I am heartbroken by the way the dominant and persistent institutional culture of the academy perpetuates inequalities and violence, both within university spaces and in ‘community-based’ research spaces.  We need concrete action for restorative justice in the communities the academy has historically colonized, and we need to decolonize our campuses by returning stolen land, refusing violent pedagogies and exploitative research and by contributing to a radical consciousness building that fuels movement toward a more just society.  We also need   It is perpetual heartbreak that I encounter daily in the classroom and in the contact zones of research as I try to change the things around me that are in my control. 

Dominique: How do you recharge or take care of yourself outside of work?

Dr. Ritterbusch: Well the bike commute serves as a daily processing space away from social media and the toxicity of the daily news. I also engage with music as a means of creating contextual reminders to strive for a daily balance between work and following practices of self- and collective care within the movements I accompany as an activist-scholar. 

Dominique: Who is a researcher (in social work or another field) who inspires you? Why?

Dr. Ritterbusch: I was drawn to social work because of the social justice principles that underpin the historical emergence of the discipline. Social work and social welfare more broadly, aims to not only create new intellectual leaders for social welfare, but also to support next generations of social workers on the frontlines of inequality and violence throughout the world. As I worked for social justice throughout Colombia for the last ten years, some the most revolutionary conversations that I have had in my lifetime were with young social workers changing lives throughout the country, in geographically excluded rural and indigenous communities, in river communities spanning throughout Latin America and in the depths of inequality and marginalization in the principal metropolis of Medellín, Buenaventura, Bogotá, Cali and Cartagena. I am so inspired by their work and struggle in the face of state persecution and living in conflict-affected and structurally marginalized communities. These are people who I have met quite literally in the trenches in rural and urban areas. I asked these young social workers where they studied social work.  Some graduated from the National University in Bogotá while others were trained in faith-based social work programs which emerged from the Latin American liberation theology tradition. These social justice champions were doing incredibly committed, long-term social change work in the depths of injustice in Colombia. I really admire this work and over time I longed to have more contact with more radical students emerging from such traditions. 

Dominique: What advice would you offer to social work doctoral students? 

Dr. Ritterbusch: Find spaces of collective inquiry in your program where you can engage in spaces of intellectual encounter and resistance regarding what you are the most passionate about – you want to get the most out of these years of uninterrupted self and collective inquiry in your life. Find a space where you can engage in sentipensamiento for social justice. 

Dominique: What are some projects or publications that you would like people to know about?

Dr. Ritterbusch:

Ritterbusch, A. E. (2019), Empathy at Knifepoint: The Dangers of Research and Lite Pedagogies for Social Justice Movements. Antipode. doi:10.1111/anti.12530

Ritterbusch, A. (2012).  Bridging Guidelines and Practice: Toward a Grounded Care Ethics in  Youth Participatory Action Research. The Professional Geographer 64(1), 16 – 24. doi:10.1080/00330124.2011.596783

Dominique: Thank you so much for allowing me to interview you Dr. Ritterbusch. I know I learned a lot from you and believe others who read our series will benefit as well!