The Graduate School of Social Service and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences have begun the planning stages of a collaborative, community-based project set for this fall. The project is titled “Mutuality and the Spanish-Speaking Immigrant Families in East Harlem: The Work of LSA Family Services.” Working with the LSA Family Health Service Organization (LSA), the two Fordham graduate schools will help LSA evaluate the effectiveness of their programs offered to families in need in East Harlem.
The project’s team will be spearheaded by three faculty members – Dr. G. Lawrence Farmer (GSS), Dr. Carey Kasten (GSAS – Modern Languages and Literatures), and Dr. Brenna Moore (GSAS – Theology), while also including one student intern from each department. Farmer thinks the interdisciplinary approach will optimize the workflow, make for a more well-rounded study, and offer better insight into the services LSA provides to families in their community.
“I think it’s important because this is an agency that really would like to learn more about the impact of their programming,” Farmer said. “They’ve [LSA] grown over the years to provide a broad array of health and wellness services to the community they serve, and they see it as a mission and a part of their spiritual mission, but they also want to know exactly what are the impacts.”
The Social Service Study
The team of researchers will interview and survey 40 families who have experienced the programs at LSA, using their answers to showcase what programs these families think are effective, and what could be improved. Moore noted that when she and her colleagues first had the idea for the project, it seemed like a great way for everyone involved to take time to pause and advocate for healing — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We decided it might be healing for us, the students, and LSA to do something really creative and productive, even in this time,” she said. “[We decided] that you can really stay committed to the work that we are all meant to do, and actually put something positive out in the world at this time.”
Of the 40 families they will interview, many will be Spanish-speaking immigrants – a group LSA makes sure to advocate for in their mission. This is where Kasten offers her expertise – not only on the Spanish language, but also to provide context and information about this community of people. By learning about the language and the culture, the team will have a better understanding of the potential issues experienced by those at LSA.
“Mainly my students learn about the Spanish-speaking communities in New York and some of the issues that are particular to those communities,” she said. “So, I can provide some context, insight, and resources for the research team that may be more culturally sensitive, but also more historically informed.”
Moore will provide an outlet for information on the spiritual side of LSA, researching the history of the world view and faith that animates the agency’s work. According to LSA’s website, “the first Little Sisters of the Assumption arrived here [East Harlem] from Paris to nurse the ‘sick poor’ in their own homes with respect and dignity,” and although they describe themselves as a secular nonprofit today, their foundation’s history is steeped in the Catholic religion.
“My area of research is about different Catholic efforts for social service, primarily based in Europe,” she said. “[LSA is] one example of many organizations who have really tried to embody their spirituality in a way that generates new relationships of solidarity and care.”
Farmer will contribute his specialty by conducting the interviews, creating the surveys, and determining how this data can be used to promote social justice at LSA and in East Harlem as a whole. He said that LSA grounds itself on a mutuality model – empowering its members as well as providing for them — and added that he knows people who were once recipients of LSA’s services, who came back to help provide those services to others. If anyone knows what works and what doesn’t, it’s them.
“This is, in particular, a group of families that has experienced a lot of marginalization and very intense marginalization over the last four years,” he said. “Agencies see themselves as providing services to them, and sometimes don’t engage them in hearing their voices in terms of what their needs are, or how the services are being experienced by them. It’s really important for us to lift up these families who have experienced so much marginalization.”
How it Started
You can’t expect to help anyone without building trust with them first. Whether that be with a client or an agency, establishing relationships and rapport is what defines an effective social worker. If you don’t start there, you don’t start. Period.
This is why Moore is so vital to the project. Aside from her expertise on theology, she was also a long-time volunteer at LSA.
“When I started volunteering, I wanted my kids to go and see a good place doing positive things,” she said. “We’d drop off animal crackers and baby carrots. Sometimes it might feel like just a drop in the bucket, but really what can happen is the relationships can be built.”
Then, after years of volunteering, she became a board member. She formed relationships. She discovered that one of LSA’s executive board members, Sr. Margaret Leonard, was a GSS graduate, class of 1967. Another relationship.
Moore said LSA is not an organization that has had many studies done for their members, or had many academic articles written about their work. So, when the agency decided it was time to do something like this, Moore stepped in and offered her services – which just happened to be backed by one of the most prestigious schools in New York, also steeped in religious values.
“I’m able to do this with LSA because it’s been years of me getting to know them through volunteering, figuring out what they need,” she said. “It’s hard to do something really substantive from the outside, but I started small.”
Her slow nurture of the relationship was why LSA chose Fordham to conduct this study over other schools in the area, where they also had connections. Because to LSA, Moore wasn’t just Dr. Moore from Fordham University – she was Brenna, the volunteer they’d known for years and could trust.
Moore said that academics, in their understanding of how structural change happens, can sometimes feel that local volunteer work isn’t enough. They want to change the world in leaps, not steps. But this project shows that steps turn to leaps, and helping your local community can also eventually produce a study for humanity.
Ending the Graduate School Silo
Farmer, Kasten, and Moore all believe that having multiple perspectives on this project will allow it to be more well-rounded and effective. They all noted that sometimes graduate schools can be siloed into their areas of research, becoming so hyper-focused on their own work and not leaving much room for collaboration with other disciplines. This project will break those boundaries.
“It’s a unique project in that sense,” Kasten said. “It can be difficult to work across different schools, even though our work may dialogue or we may have students in common. We all want there to be more synchronicity and more collaboration.”
And it’s not just beneficial for the faculty and their particular fields, but also students who may be interested in other disciplines.
“For students in particular who get involved in these sorts of projects, it enriches their learning – it allows them to get exposed to other disciplines, other ways of viewing the same phenomenon,” Farmer said. “It improves their ability to think critically and outside their own discipline. It’s consistent with the overall mission at Fordham: expose people to a broader, liberal arts education.”
The team also hopes their research methods will be used as a model for other schools, both at Fordham and elsewhere. But most importantly, they want to stress that this project is about the community – everything else will follow.
“In the abstract, we’re [usually]very much in our own silos, doing our own research,” Moore said. “But if you focus on a community problem and a community need, and what kind of solution academics could offer, it suddenly gets interdisciplinary immediately. Because life is interdisciplinary.”