Eight Boston College School of Social Work (BCSSW) MSW candidates are engaged in a novel Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) course designed and taught by Assistant Professor Samantha Teixeira that provides hands-on experience in the context of an existing community-engaged research partnership. In the course, students design and implement a specific project, then reflect on the possibilities for using CBPR in future settings related to community development, community organizing, and academic research.
This semester the students are working closely with youth who are a part of the Melnea Cass Network (MCN), a Roxbury-based collaborative initiative that features programs aimed at fostering mobility out of poverty and providing alternatives to violence. The BCSSW group is playing a consulting role with MCN: they listen closely to the perspectives of the young people involved in the program, with the goal of producing a final data-driven research project to help the youth achieve their own objectives.
“It has been a great opportunity to be able to lead this course, especially in how it meets at the intersection of my own research, teaching, and service goals,” says Teixeira. “And it’s been a privilege to see these students allowing the youth of the community—who are not only our clients, but also, the experts in this project—to take the lead. Each one of my students has been genuinely open-minded to learning from these youth, which I believe provides an incredibly valuable experience for each of them moving forward, whether they seek to pursue careers working with individuals and families, or, at a more macro level, changing policy on the whole.”
Leah Igdalsky is one of those open-minded students, a second-year macro concentrator who is also interning this semester at the Massachusetts Department of Education. She supports Teixeira’s notion that it’s the community members, in this case, the youth of Roxbury, who must lead the way on CBPR projects. “This course is meaningful,” she explains, “because… it’s breaking down the traditional ideas of social science research, with an expert coming in from outside and observing people. Instead, we get to play a small role in supporting these young people to conduct their own study on what matters to them in their neighborhood.”
Teixeira says that she is allowing her students to be creative in terms of how they think about their end-of-semester final projects, as long as they “leave something of value to the community.” In the meantime, the BCSSW students are working with the youth to design a survey that gets beyond the typical deficit-focused understanding of the neighborhood by asking peers about existing violence prevention programs and youth-serving programs that are already making a positive impact. The students are also working to learn how to best connect youth in the neighborhood to other existing resources that can support their goals.
“This collaboration has been an obvious win-win for Boston College and for us at the Melnea Cass Network,” says Rachele Gardner, MSW ’12, a consultant who is leading the partnership with BCSSW. “The students come in with a wealth of knowledge from the classroom, and this is another unique opportunity to learn in the field, from people within the community. And for the teens, this course flips the power dynamic on its head and says, ‘You have value to add to what we’re doing.’ It’s incredibly empowering.”