A Filmmaker, Writer, and Editor Seeks a Sociology Ph.D. to Address Racial Capitalism

September 6, 2023

Olivia Heffernan, who explores issues of justice and human rights, describes her work and decision to get a doctorate.

Olivia Heffernan headshot
Olivia Heffernan (Photo courtesy of Heffernan)

Writer, editor, and documentarian Olivia Heffernan has covered the exploitation and mistreatment of prisoners and laborers in essays in The Nation, Jacobin, and the New York Daily News and produced films about police brutality, immigration, Indigenous land-rights activism, and other human rights issues. With two CUNY professors, she is editing and researching a forthcoming book, Practical Radicals. And this month she will add a new credential to her résumé: Graduate Center Sociology Ph.D. student.

Learn More About the Ph.D. Program in Sociology

She filled us in by email on her decision to become a Ph.D. student, her work, and her advice for those who are contemplating a doctorate.

The Graduate Center: Why did you choose to come to the Graduate Center for a Ph.D. in Sociology?

Heffernan: I wanted to attend a public university with a reputation for offering affordable and equitable educational opportunities and CUNY met those criteria. Many of the academics I admire most are sociologists, and the field of sociology, particularly at the Graduate Center, seemed to lend itself to creative and expansive projects. 

GC: What are you hoping to get out of your Graduate Center Ph.D. experience?

Heffernan: To be compensated and surrounded by people encouraging you to read, write, and share about the things you care most about is nothing short of an honor. Not so much goals, as motivations to contribute to the CUNY community, challenge academia’s inaccessibility, and disseminate knowledge that could advance movements looking to dismantle racial capitalism.    

GC: What aspects of labor, race, and incarceration do you find especially compelling? How did you become interested in covering those areas?

Heffernan: The fact that they are compounding. The three rely on each other to justify the exploitation that exists along racial, class, and carceral lines. My research started in human rights and philosophy. I became obsessed with understanding the philosophical foundations of justice, the U.S. criminal justice system an example of its failure. From there, I discovered disturbing patterns in racism and labor exploitation as they relate to incarceration, both in structurally and metaphysically. 

GC: Are there any film or writing projects that you’re especially proud of?

Heffernan: I am most proud of projects that have been in collaboration with the people who are directly impacted by the systems about which I write. This Baffler piece is an example, and this Nation piece is another. I’ve also had a lot of fun shooting and editing in 16mm film for no reason other than it is a medium of expression that feels exciting to me.

GC: Can you tell us more about your forthcoming book, Practical Radicals?

Heffernan: Practical Radicals is a book I assisted in editing and researching. It is authored by two CUNY faculty members, Stephanie Luce and Deepak Bhargava and will be released in November 2023 by New Press. The book is a guide to organizing and movement building for “underdogs” i.e., people and campaigns without the economic or political power of the elites but whose strength lies in their solidarity power. Along with numerous historical and contemporary case studies to illuminate the organizing strategies proposed in the book, Luce and Bhargava offer an assortment of tools to practice them. 

GC: What was the Ph.D. application process like for you?

Heffernan: Relatively seamless and standard. The interview portion of the process was the most interesting and revealing; you have the opportunity to meet faculty and current students and ask them challenging questions too — a reminder that you and the university are choosing each other. 

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