Researcher of the Month - Yolande Pottie Sherman
Dr. Yolande Pottie-Sherman is an assistant professor in geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland and co-lead of the Adaptive Cities & Engagement (ACE) Space, a research collective promoting social justice and inclusivity in small cities. She is an urban and political geographer who writes primarily about human migration.
Yolande completed her undergraduate degree in geography and political science at McGill University, an MA in geography at Queen’s University, a PhD in geography at the University of British Columbia, and was postdoctoral fellow in geography at Dartmouth College.
Adaptive Cities & Engagement Space: https://www.munacespace.com
Faculty page: https://www.mun.ca/geog/people/faculty/ypottiesherman.php
What first sparked your interest in studying geography?
Field trips! Seriously. I didn’t take geography in high school, so when a friend at university told me about a geography course I didn’t know what to expect. It was a 1-credit field course at McGill. In one weekend, we measured stream velocity and the distribution of trees on a slope and interviewed local store owners about the changes in their town.
I was attracted to geography because it offered a chance to combine science and social science in one degree. I loved that I could take courses on urban geography and biogeography at the same time as geographic information science, which gave me access to skills like working with GIS, satellite imagery, and specialized field equipment to solve problems for communities.
How has your own experience influenced your academic career?
I’m the child of parents from small town Michigan and small town Nova Scotia who met in Toronto in the 1970s. I’ve always been fascinated by the broader movements of people that my parents’ stories represent, including urbanization, the migration of Americans to Canada during the Vietnam War, and the out-migration of young people from Atlantic Canada.
Also, I grew up in Syracuse, New York, in a county that has the third-highest per capita refugee acceptance rate in the United States. There were 80 languages spoken at my high school, Nottingham. My current work is trying to tell that story – of the contributions that refugees and refugee serving organizations have made to Rust Belt cities, including Syracuse. This story is especially important now, given the Trump administration’s disastrous cuts to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. These experiences led me to study human migration and urban geography, with a focus on non-traditional or new immigration destinations.
What’s the weirdest/strangest/most surprising place you’ve ever found yourself in the course of your research?
Sitting in a Scientology booth at an open-air market, observing someone give “stress tests” to market-goers. My PhD thesis was about the role of marketplaces in supporting inclusive cities. Part of this work involved observing people’s interactions at two multicultural open-air night markets: the Chinatown Night Market in Vancouver and the Summer Night Market in Richmond, British Columbia. Some vendors let me sit in their booths with them. It was always interesting!
What are you currently working on?
Right now, I’m completing work on my SSHRC-funded project, “Immigration, Urban Change, and the Contemporary Rust Belt.” Human migration is a central dimension of urban change. My research looks at this relationship from the perspective of cities in the “Rust Belt,” the former manufacturing heartland of the U.S. My work highlights the limitations of the singular spatial imaginary of the Rust Belt as a region associated with loss of industry, population, and status. Increasingly, both immigrants and refugees are part of the comeback stories of Northeastern and Midwestern cities, from Buffalo to Dayton to Pittsburgh. I’m interested in the rich, complex, and tangled contemporary spatial nuances associated with various kinds of international migration in this region.
This work fits within the Adaptive Cities & Engagement Space’s goal to explore what small- and medium-sized cities offer to themes and challenges of critical importance in Canada and the wider world.
I am also collaborating with Dr. Isabelle Côté (Memorial, political science) on a project called, “Resettlement in Global Context,” which examines contemporary community-relocation movements across and beyond Canada, including Newfoundland and Labrador’s Community Relocation Plan.
What has been the biggest success to date for you personally?
Getting hired in the geography department at Memorial University!
What is your philosophy in regards to research?
Find people you enjoy collaborating with and work hard on those collaborations. And build research relationships with people outside of academia that work in the same field. That’s why I love attending the National Metropolis Conference. It’s a conference devoted to cross-sector collaboration between government, service providers, and academics working on migration issues.
What sort of impact do you hope your research will have?
There are lots of ways to think about impact. It’s the best compliment when other instructors assign your work to their students as required reading. My work is being assigned at the University of Toronto, the University of Illinois, the University of British Columbia, and McGill, McMaster, in geography, urban planning, political science, and sociology courses. Ideally, my goals are to contribute to scholarship in urban geography and migration studies while also contributing to informed public dialogue on immigration and urban issues.
How do you feel your work is helping to boost Memorial’s national and international reputation?
One way I am doing this is by co-leading the SSHRC-funded Migration Research Collective/Collectif de Recherche sur les Migrations with Drs. Luna Vives (Université de Montreal) and Laura Madokoro (Carleton). We are an interdisciplinary group of 15 academics based at 11 Canadian universities who do policy-relevant research in the area of international migration. Our project, “Building migration from the ground up,” connects researchers with the Federal Ministry of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), the Canada Border Services Agency, and the Immigration and Refugee Board.
How is this research helping address the needs and opportunities for our province?
Increasing immigration and building welcoming communities are critical dimensions of our Provincial Government’s “Way Forward Plan.” My research focuses directly on the role of municipalities in these projects. Through the Adaptive Cities and Engagement Space, we are also committed to helping students get engaged in local urban issues and informing public dialogue by hosting visiting speakers.
How are you supporting the next generation of researchers and HQP (highly qualified personnel)?
Through the Adaptive Cities & Engagement Space! ACE Space has 13 student members this year, including nine graduate students and four undergraduate students. Our Urban Research Group has regular meetings where students can ask questions about their research, share tips they have learned throughout their studies, and discuss urban development issues and topics with likeminded people. I am also fortunate to work with a team of excellent student research assistants, including Camellia Penney, Randi Burke, and Siyi Zhou. My approach to training undergraduate and graduate students is to combine research and professional training so that students gain the complementary skills required to be successful after they leave MUN, including those to mobilize immigration research for policy, NGO, and academic audiences.
What is the one thing you would like the general public to know about your research?
Migration is one of the defining issues of our times. My research is part of a global effort to understand experiences of migration, including how cities can influence migration patterns and newcomers’ quality of life. Making better urban policy can really influence how newcomers experience the city and the communities in which they live.