Blum Scholars present preliminary results of community-based research

Graduate students examine jail health care, the hidden resistance of Latinas, Central Valley youth, and feminism in the farmlands

Photo of four Blum Scholars
Blum Schollars, l-r, Randy Villegas, Christine Rosales, Roxy Davis, and Roxanna Villalobos. (Photo by Lisa Nishioka)

People incarcerated in the Santa Cruz County jail face difficulty getting medical and mental health care while behind bars, and those on medication experience lapses of days, weeks, or even months before they receive the medicine they need.

Those were among the preliminary findings of Roxy Davis, a third-year graduate student in psychology who investigated the quality of health care for locally incarcerated individuals as part of a research project funded by the UC Santa Cruz Blum Center on Poverty, Social Enterprise, and Participatory Governance.

Davis was one of four graduate students who discussed their research Feb. 8 during an annual event that showcases the community-engaged research of Blum Scholars.

Every summer, the Blum Center funds research projects that explore issues of economic justice locally, regionally, nationally, and around the globe. Graduate students like Davis partner with community organizations to ask critical questions; the work often becomes the focus of dissertations.

"These students are agents of social change," said Blum Center Director Heather Bullock, a professor of psychology. "Through deep engagement with the community, Blum Scholars amplify the voices of those whose experiences and perspectives are marginalized. Our community partners greatly value their scholarship, which informs the path forward as we work together for a more just world."

Health care behind bars

For Davis, whose findings were based on interviews with 14 formerly incarcerated individuals, key findings include:

  • The quality of care prisoners receive is low, typically characterized by brief, perfunctory visits, and detox care is particularly inadequate
  • Maltreatment by staff is common, and requests for care were often viewed with suspicion
  • Prisoners experience jail as a harmful environment that often exacerbates existing physical or mental health problems and gives rise to new problems, particularly among those held in solitary confinement

The findings indicate serious issues that merit further investigation, said Davis, who conducted the study in partnership with Sin Barras, a local organization that advocates for alternatives to incarceration. Davis plans to continue this vein of research; she hopes to assemble a supervisory board of community members to ensure the work is led by people directly affected by these issues. Davis wants to interview more people on both sides of the system—those who have been incarcerated, as well as health care providers—and is eager to focus more specifically on women's health issues.

Hidden worlds of resistance

Each of the Blum Scholars is motivated by a desire to understand the mechanisms of positive social change. Christine Rosales, a sixth-year graduate student in social psychology with designated emphases in feminist studies and critical race and ethnic studies, is exploring what she calls the "hidden resistance" of Latinas—the everyday actions and attitudes that push back against social injustice. Unlike public marches, protests, and movements, these personal acts are not reflected in the literature, according to Rosales, who gathered the testimonios of participants in focus groups and in-depth, follow-up interviews.

A key avenue of Latina resistance, she found, is teaching and modeling a different way—for children and others in their community. Her respondents take pride in their roots and cultural background, and they resist dominant narratives about dark skin, disability, and the inferiority of women. Latinas create "micro-liberatory" worlds in their homes, where they educate children about resisting oppression, emphasize self-love as a tool to break intergenerational trauma, and embrace the restorative, liberating power of nature.

Rosales, who is sensitive to the power dynamic of being a researcher, developed a three-part process to engage deeply with 19 participants in her project. First, she hosted focus groups in local community centers, providing seven questions to seed conversation among participants about their challenges, their hopes and dreams, and the favorite moments of their day. A map-drawing activity elicited more detail about how and where the women spend their day, and what brings them joy, as well as pain. Each woman then wrote a letter to a loved one about her aspirations for social change. Rosales conducted follow-up interviews with 10 participants, and the final piece will take place in June, when she will host a gathering with participants to share her findings and brainstorm next steps.

Already, Rosales said, participants are feeling good about sharing their stories with other women of color, being heard, and having their actions recognized by a researcher.

Civic engagement in mixed-status households in the Central Valley

Two projects focused on Latinos in the Central Valley, where Sociology Professor Veronica Terriquez led the Central Valley Freedom Summer project, a voter-registration and education effort modeled after Freedom Summer in Mississippi in 1964. As a region, the Central Valley boasts incredible agricultural production—as well as high rates of extreme poverty, unemployment, and contaminated groundwater.

Randy Villegas is a second-year graduate student in politics who supervised undergraduate participants in the voter drive. A native of the Central Valley, he is curious about the civic engagement of Latinx youth in rural areas that are more politically conservative. His research project focused on the civic engagement of Central Valley youth living in a mixed-status family—in which one or more member of the immediate family is undocumented.

These youth experience what Villegas calls a "duality of demands"— a desire to engage civically and, on the other hand, a reluctance to engage for fear of jeopardizing the safety of an undocumented family member.

To explore this duality, Villegas conducted 25 in-depth interviews over the summer and collected extensive field notes during a youth voter-registration project. He also collaborated with the Dolores Huerta Foundation to observe youth in action at protests, rallies, and events.

Villegas found that youth from mixed-status families were more civically engaged, particularly those who were active with a community-based organization. He also explored schools as sites of "resilience and resistance," and he found that engagement was highest around the issues of health care, immigration, and voting.

Latinx communities remain "under mobilized despite their size in population and potential in the polls," according to Villegas, who suspects the factors shaping civic engagement in the Central Valley may be generalizable to other rural, conservative parts of the country. 

Feminism in the farmlands

Roxanna Villalobos (B.A. '12, psychology and feminist studies), a second-year doctoral student in sociology who also worked with Terriquez on Central Valley Freedom Summer, is investigating how young Latinas from low-income communities in the Central Valley take political action and make social change. Her work is at the forefront of rural feminist studies, and extends it beyond the context of the Midwest and Appalachia, where most research on rural girls in the United States has taken place.

The Central Valley is "a place of contradictions," with rich farmland and poor farm workers, a large population of low-income immigrants from Mexico and a large white population. How, wonders Villalobos, does feminism play out for young Latinas in this context, and how do they take political action?

In preliminary findings based on semi-structured interviews with 20 Latina respondents ages 18-24, Villalobos found that Latinas who are involved with community-based organizations self-identify as feminist activists and engage in their communities around local issues—including, but not limited to, gender equality. Those who don't work with community organizations are less inclined to identify with feminism, and although they aspire to activism, their forms of political participation are limited. Their engagement is constrained by varied forms of work and an overwhelming amount of responsibility, as well as the vulnerability they feel around their or a family member's immigration status.

Community-based organizations serve as a "stepping stone," giving Latinas an outlet for activism, and participants report that women—their grandmothers, mothers, and sisters—serve as important inspirational feminist figures in their lives. Villalobos partnered with 99Rootz, a nonprofit youth rights organization in the Central Valley. 

Call for submissions

The Blum Center supports community-based, summer research projects, awarding up to $2,000 each to approximately 10 undergraduate and graduate scholars each year. Stipends help cover research costs, including compensation for participants, materials, and travel. The deadline for submissions for grants to support Summer 2019 projects is April 12. Selected recipients will be notified in early May.

Established in 2015, the UC Santa Cruz Blum Center is one of 10 UC centers, each of which focuses on alleviating poverty. The Santa Cruz center supports community-engaged, solution-focused research and anti-poverty initiatives.

"Our mission is to challenge poverty and inequality in its many forms," said Bullock. "Blum Scholars partner with community organizations and build bridges with key stakeholders who share our desire to promote economic and social justice."