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Esther Sullivan is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Colorado, Denver. Her research focuses on poverty, spatial inequality, and housing, with a special interest in both forced and voluntary residential mobility.

A previous speaker at Point of Departure, Esther holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from The University of Texas at Austin and a B.A. in English from The University of Chicago.

Here, we talk about the allure of legal marijuana for new residents, Denver’s expanding skyline, and the mechanics of a TED talk.

What are some thoughts you have as you get around in Denver?

I see a city of cranes. That’s exciting but also unnerving. With this much development occurring in the city, issues of gentrification and displacement are in the front of my mind. Denver is one of the fastest-growing cities in one of the fastest-growing states in the United States. In a city of cranes, where development is everywhere, issues like housing security, fair housing access, eviction, and government-led urban redevelopment are going to come to the fore.

You’ve been researching the correlation between the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and folks moving to Colorado. What have you discovered?

I’m interested in both forced and voluntary residential relocation. The legalization of cannabis in Colorado is a unique opportunity to explore how and why people move to states where cannabis laws have changed. In some cases this is out of need, as is the case with people who refer to themselves as cannabis medical refugees. In some cases it’s out of an entrepreneurial spirit interested in capitalizing on new business opportunities. In some cases it’s more of an aspirational search for a different, maybe better, way of life. I’m exploring all of this for my next book, Greener Pastures: Moving for Marijuana.

What do you think living in Denver will be like in 10 years?

One thing that I have loved about Denver is the city’s commitment to fostering civic life. Denver exemplifies something very fundamental: when you provide people spaces to enjoy their city, they will. I love to see the many ways people make the most of civic life and public space in Denver. But for Denver to sustain that, the city needs to preserve existing communities and not let population growth mean that our current population is priced out of city life. In terms of population growth and livability, Denver is often up there with Austin, TX, a city that also, unfortunately, has this nation’s highest level of income inequality in this country. I hope in 10 years life in Denver will prove that extraordinary population growth does have to mean deep levels of inequality.

Can you tell me about a personal point of departure in your life?

I used to think I wanted to be an architect. I was living in Texas when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and witnessed the flood of refugees coming across state lines. I went to New Orleans the next year to work with humanitarian organizations helping people return and resettle in their homes. At that time much of the city remained without electricity, homes were filled with mud and debris, and people lived in toxic FEMA trailers while they waited to return home. Seeing that, my focus really shifted from wanting to design housing to wanting to understand the connections between housing, community, and broader social inequalities. That was a point of departure. Shortly after, I began work on my Ph.D. and eventually became a professor of sociology.

Do you have a favorite TED talk?

That would have to be Will Stephen’s TEDxNewYork talk “How to sound smart in your TEDx Talk.” He gives a talk about nothing while brilliantly breaking down how every TED talk is arranged, from the voice modulations to the to the dramatic pauses. It’s pretty hilarious and also spot on. It leaves me wondering, will I sound like that?

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