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W&M establishes Social Justice Policy Initiative

  • Laptop with screen showing graphic of Virginia map on left side and three women videoconferencing on right side
    Housing equity:  Caroline Hanley, associate professor of sociology, meets remotely with her research team that is working on the Richmond Eviction Crisis project as part of the William & Mary sociology department's Social Justice Policy Initiative.  Photo courtesy of Caroline Hanley
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William & Mary students and faculty have formalized and expanded several programs focusing on equity issues in the local community, and added new ones, with the establishment of the Social Justice Policy Initiative in the sociology department.

The program will start this fall and its organizers recently announced the first group of students who will serve as research fellows, research affiliates and interns.

The initiative is a faculty-student collaborative project to engage in policy-oriented and community-based research and advocacy, according to its faculty founders. The SJPI aims to bring sociological and inter-disciplinary research to community-based and advocacy organizations and policy-makers at local, state, national and global levels.

“Many of us were already involved in this work and realized that, if we collaborated through this initiative, we could increase the opportunities available to students, benefit from new synergies across projects and strengthen our impact in the community and on policy,” said Amy Quark, associate professor of sociology, who will work on three of the projects.

The SJPI is based in sociology but includes faculty collaborators in Africana studies; government; theatre, speech and dance; and modern languages and literatures.

Within the SJPI, students will work with faculty members and external partners such as community organizations or policymakers to research pressing social issues and support their programming and policy advocacy, according to faculty. The initial projects are affordable housing, educational equity, eviction crisis, racial and partisan gerrymandering, food justice and local black histories.

“The research fellows and interns were selected through a competitive application process,” Quark said. “Given that this is the inaugural year of the program and that we launched the initiative amid the deep uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus, we were surprised by the deep interest from our students in these opportunities.”

After receiving numerous strong applications, faculty members added two more research fellowships and an additional education equity intern. At least two additional interns will work with the York-James City-Williamsburg NAACP and the Let Freedom Ring Foundation of the historic First Baptist Church.

“The interns offer another important dimension,” Quark said. “These internships are designed to give students hands-on experience working with social justice organizations in the community while expanding the capacity of these community organizations to achieve their goals. We have two educational equity interns who will work with The Village Initiative, and we are also working with other social justice-oriented organizations in the community to see if we can support their goals through the initiative as well.”

Launching amidst the pandemic has posed challenges, according to Quark. But faculty members have worked hard to design the positions to facilitate work in the blended and remote learning environments in place for fall.

“We are excited to be able to engage so many students in meaningful community and policy-based work despite the uncertainties we currently face,” Quark said. “Unfortunately, our food justice internship, through which W&M students have been offering an after-school club at Matthew Whaley Elementary School for the past three years, will be put on hold for 2020 given coronavirus concerns.”

The collaborations give students and faculty a chance to do hands-on research and advocacy along with community engagement.

“The Social Justice Policy Initiative provides a mechanism for students to get involved with sociology faculty’s engaged research on topics that relate to social justice,” said Professor of Sociology Jennifer Bickham Mendez, who is working on the educational equity project along with Quark and Associate Professor of Sociology Monika Gosin.

“As someone who has devoted her scholarly career to research initiatives that draw on and promote community engagement, I see this initiative as a fantastic opportunity to blend my research and teaching while integrating students into social justice-informed research.”

Projects she is involved with that she said will benefit from collaborations with student interns include a research project undertaken in collaboration with Assistant Professor of English as a Second Language/Bilingual Education Katherine Barko-Alva on English language learners’ school integration at a local high school. Another collaboration with Quark and Kayla Aaron ’19 is analyzing data for a project on educational equity and a proposed high school rezoning that occurred in the Williamsburg area in 2017.

“Both of these projects are informed by my and my collaborators' work in the community with organizations such as The Village Initiative and in partnership with local schools,” Bickham Mendez said. “Through such partnerships we have sought to put our skills as researchers and teachers into the service of educational equity and inclusion through advocacy and providing research and teaching support.

“I am looking forward to getting started with our student interns, and even under the difficult conditions imposed by COVID-19 I think that we can advance our research goals while staying mindful and attuned to the needs of the local community.”

Caroline Hanley, associate professor of sociology, has been working with W&M students on the Richmond Eviction Crisis project for about a year.

“Our initial focus was preparing to conduct an original survey of residents in Richmond's high eviction neighborhoods, in partnership with the Legal Aid Justice Center,” Hanley said. “The pandemic has forced us to put those plans on hold, and to think creatively about how our research can support tenants at risk of eviction and the community organizations that work with them.”

This summer she worked with sociology majors Kailyn Small ’21 and Emma Schmidt ’21 to track Virginia eviction court proceedings.

“The eviction crisis in Virginia preceded the pandemic, but COVID has both deepened the need for stable housing and made it harder for tenants to make ends meet,” Hanley said. “The statewide moratorium on evictions expired on June 29 and there are currently over 12,000 evictions pending in Virginia. We are building a database of statewide eviction court proceedings that will ultimately allow us to understand where the moratorium was violated, and investigate how effectively Gov. Northam's $50 million rent and mortgage relief program is implemented.”