This semester, UConn has become one of the pioneering U.S. universities to spearhead a national research initiative focused on issues of women and girls of color in the United States.
As part of a national consortium of more than 50 universities and institutions, called The Collaborative to Advance Equity Through Research on Women and Girls of Color, the University has committed more than $200,000 toward research on issues related to women and girls of color in STEM fields and in public health.
The national initiative is led by the Anna Julia Cooper Center at Wake Forest University, under the direction of director and professor Melissa Harris-Perry; and was launched at a conference that the Center hosted in collaboration with the White House Council on Women and Girls.
The Collaborative at UConn is placing its focus on intersectionality research: studies that examine different interacting and overlapping social identities.
“There are many analyses that look at different layers: for example, issues concerning women, or issues concerning people of color,” said Shayla Nunnally, associate professor of political science and leader of The Collaborative at UConn. “But there are far fewer that look at both. We want to address this knowledge gap on issues of women and girls of color.”
The initiative has funded 15 UConn faculty, graduate student, and undergraduate research projects; supported two postdoctoral scholars; developed two new undergraduate courses on current issues of race and gender; will support research workshops for all participants to shore up the research community; will present lectures and programs for the University community; and will feature a culminating research symposium in Spring 2017.
The Collaborative kicked off on Sept. 28 with UConn alumna Julia Jordan-Zachery ’94 MA, ’97 Ph.D., director of Black Studies at Providence College, as keynote speaker.
“Women and girls of color often dance on the margins of societal institutions,” she said in her address. “We need to center the voices of black women and girls as the focus of our research.”
Joelle Murchison, chief diversity officer at UConn, also made remarks at the event. “I’m very excited about this initiative,” she said. “We are making moves here at UConn. We hope to provide opportunities through research, but also through lived experience and partnership.”
Equity through research
With funding from The Collaborative, faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Neag School of Education, the College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources, and the School of Social Work are working on two topics related to women and girls of color: environment and public health issues, and STEM pipeline issues.
Under the public health and environment theme, projects include that of Marysol Asencio, professor of sociology, who is tracking issues surrounding Latina lesbians and their experience in the U.S. Her fieldwork will include interviews with Latina lesbians in several major U.S. cities.
Danielle Kloster, a Ph.D. student in natural resources, is examining the barriers to participation in the environmental movement for women and girls of color, and will use focus groups to understand the environmental behaviors and attitudes in this group.
Evelyn Simien, associate professor of political science and Africana Studies, is collecting data about sex-trafficking and sexual violence among women of color in the state of Connecticut.
Undergraduate student Tarif Brown ’17 (CLAS), an Asian studies, Chinese, and human rights major, is analyzing social and economic data on various ethnic groups of Asian Americans in the state of Connecticut.
Under the STEM participation theme, John Settlage, professor of science teacher education, is exploring road blocks to quality STEM education for girls of color, especially in urban environments.
Similarly, postdoctoral fellow Shannon Gleason is examining the history of science education policy, and how that has shaped current science education equity efforts, especially as it relates to recruiting women and girls of color into careers in science and technology.
“Women and girls of color are dramatically underrepresented in the sciences,” said Gleason. “There’s a huge focus on STEM fields right now at universities like UConn. What does that mean for students who are women and girls of color?”
The researchers will present results in an April public symposium on the Storrs campus. Associate vice president for research Michelle Williams likens this approach to that of translational research in the biomedical sciences.
“Just like we think about biologists working in the lab, then translating their work from the bench to the medical clinic, the work of this Collaborative is taking the research on race, culture, gender, and sexuality, and bringing it to the kitchen table,” Williams said at the kickoff event.
“We want this work to be taken quickly to individuals, so their lives can be improved,” she added.
Lifting student voices
This semester, Gleason is teaching a new undergraduate course, titled “Gender, Culture, and Science.” Double-listed under Africana Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, the class pushes students to think about the intersection of gender and race with the world of science and technology.
Gleason said she structures the class to enable students to recognize and critique social constructions in the culture of science, and understand how different people benefit from or are disadvantaged by them.
“In this class, students have the opportunity to think about the history and social context of science, as well as how it relates to their own science education and careers,” she said.
In a recent class, the students – who span all four class years and comprise many science majors – gave midterm presentations on gender identity and safety; portrayals of women in the news media; gender representations in video games; and the lack of women in science careers.
Sora Kim, a senior biological sciences major who plans to pursue a nursing career, said the class has helped her recognize and better understand the cultural issues she has perceived in her science training.
“Lots of women major in science, but they face walls in trying to pursue a career in science, so they give up,” she said. “This class teaches you a lot about life, and the different experiences and perspectives that we all bring to our daily lives.”
She says she has learned from the class that although science is perceived to be based solely on facts, people are diverse and that will factor into their values.
Postdoctoral fellow Alexandra Moffett-Bateau will offer a course on public health and environmental issues related to women and girls of color in the spring.
Nunnally said these courses represent just one level of the multi-level approach that fortifies the program.
“Through this initiative, UConn is engaging at all levels: undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral, junior scholar, and senior scholar,” she said. “I don’t quite have the words to express how much that commitment means to everyone involved.”
The Collaborative at UConn is supported by the Office of the President, the Office of the Provost, the Office of the Vice President for Research, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Africana Studies Institute, the Asian and Asian American Studies Institute, El Instituto, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and the Humanities Institute. Additional partnerships, such as with UConn Law, will help bring guest lecturers and speakers to campus.
By: Christine Buckley, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences