Assistant Professor Samantha Teixeira joined the faculty at BCSSW at the beginning of this academic year. Teixeira will study issues of environmental justice, a critical, growing sub-discipline in the field of social work.
Teixeira’s own research to date has focused on how neighborhood environmental conditions affect youth, and how youth can be engaged in creating solutions to the environmental problems that plague their own communities. Teixeira believes in a community-based participatory approach to solving the entrenched social problems of underrepresented communities, and she has employed such a model in her work, paying particular attention to youth and what they can bring to the table.
In this Q&A with BC Social Work, Teixeira discusses her work with young people in the Homewood community of Pittsburgh, how she hopes to implement her unique research methodology in the neighborhoods of Boston, and her current project addressing environmental justice through the Grand Challenges for Social Work.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us today Professor Teixeira. Let’s delve right into your research, because it’s so compelling. You’re very much interested in the perspective of community youth, and finding ways to empower neighborhood residents to contribute to solving their own problems. Tell us more about where this approach to research comes from.
Samantha Teixeira: Prior to pursuing my PhD, I worked in child protective services for the state of New Hampshire, doing investigations and intake, and this experience shaped the direction I would take in my research.
When I started my MSW, I had the opportunity to work closely with a community in Pittsburgh, called Homewood, and I realized that all of the issues I had been seeing in child welfare were really tied up in neighborhoods and place, and where families lived. This opened my eyes to a new way of thinking of issues that affect youth – that the neighborhood environment that they were living in had a lot to do with the opportunities they would have throughout life.
I was fortunate to establish some strong relationships in Homewood throughout my MSW, and when it came time to write my dissertation, I focused on an organization there called Junior Green Corps. The Corps provides a green jobs program, which educates high-schoolers about environmental issues, with the specific idea of providing an opportunity to get out of the neighborhood through a career path related to the environment.
I started to ask the youth there the question “how did they think living in Homewood affected their opportunities?” and as we discussed this question, I also realized they were incredibly strong reporters. I then conceptualized my project to integrate the youth as co-researchers, and from there we set out to document the environmental conditions in Homewood.
I recently published a paper in the journal Child Indicators Research based on my dissertation findings, called “Beyond Broken Windows: Youth Perspectives on Housing Abandonment and its Impact on Individual and Community Well-Being.”
As you mentioned, you actually considered the Homewood youth to be “co-researchers,” and this isn’t all that was unique regarding your research methodology. Explain a little about how you found your data.
ST: My co-researchers and I used a mixed methods approach that integrated components of photography, community mapping, in-depth interviews, and spatial analysis. I think that all of these techniques, when applied in concert, can be effective in bringing out the perspectives of neighborhood residents, and finding ways to intervene in community problems in a way that makes sense to community members. I’ve actually written a paper on participatory photo mapping specifically, and how I used the tool to better understand youth perspectives on property vacancy in Homewood.
Have you begun to implement these approaches to research since arriving in Boston? What projects are you working on currently?
ST: There are two main projects that I’m beginning to tackle here in Boston. In collaboration with Margaret Lombe, I am working to establish a partnership between BCSSW and a branch of Catholic Charities located in the Dorchester section of the city. I’m really excited about the potential for building lasting connections with the community here, and I’m currently in the rapport-building stage of this project.
I’ve also connected with a group of youth called Youth Hub, a collaborative, neighborhood-based initiative working to improve youth outcomes in Boston’s communities. Youth Hub is based in the Codman Square section of Dorchester, and again, I’m currently doing the groundwork of establishing the kinds of relationships we’ll need to successfully build effective research partnerships into the future.
Both of these projects fall under the auspices of the school’s RISE initiative, which was recently founded by Professors Dearing, McRoy, and Takeuchi. The fact that the school has announced an initiative with an expressed mission to “reframe challenges and resolve problems around social, economic, and environmental equity,” and that this initiative has already forged a partnership with the White House, is very exciting.
You’re also working on one of the recently announced Grand Challenges for Social Work, specifically, “create social responses to a changing environment.” Tell us more about this project.
ST: To me, broadly, environmental justice is the idea that every person has a right to a clean, safe, environment regardless of who they are, in terms of race, class, and ethnicity, and no matter where they live.
Our group project working on the Grand Challenges takes this wide view of environmental justice, and it seeks to address the reality that environmental issues disproportionately impact the most vulnerable. One needs only to look at the current situation in Flint, Michigan to drive home this unfortunate reality.
Our points of entry in this group are diverse: We are social scientists focusing on urban heat islands, access to safe drinking water, global climate change, and of course, the proactive interventions of a disadvantaged community in Pittsburgh. Yet, we share the perspective that environmental justice and social justice are tightly connected to each other, and we believe that helping vulnerable individuals, communities, and societies to anticipate and respond to environmental turbulence is a critical avenue for social work involvement.
In short, I believe that we, as social workers, have an important role to play. While, in some ways, we may be new to this issue, we alone have the skills in community practice and organizing that are key to supporting the forward-looking development of resilient communities across the globe.