Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 8
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Course focuses on voting rights, interaction with community

In the fall of 2005, Whitman students were given the opportunity to do academic research which would directly impact their Eastern Washington community. The course and project, dubbed The State of the State for Washington Latinos, initially drew in 12 undergraduate students who researched everything from farm work to education to domestic violence in small towns and cities in Washington under the guidance of Associate Professor of Politics Paul Apostolidis.

The entire report, completed at the end of the fall semester, was the first inclusive account of varying conditions for Latinos in Washington.

This groundbreaking research was presented to community leaders, opinion-makers and media heads; it was also published online at The State of the State for Washington Latinos Web site, accessible at walatinos.org.

That was only the beginning.

The next year, Apostolidis offered the course again with the goal of expanding the research previous students had begun. Again, the Community-Based Research project was successful, and this time, Princeton University took notice.

The project was awarded a Learn and Serve America innovation grant from Princeton : one of 10 awards made this year from 100 applicants.

“The main reason we got funded: aside from the fact that students had done such bang-up work and the project has been so successful: is that we do some things here that are pretty different than most other places that do community-based research,” said Apostolidis.

The State of the State for Washington Latinos uniquely focuses on empirical research projects which beg explanatory analysis for statistical findings, Apostolidis said. More importantly, though, the project incorporates a public communications component: Students must present their research to community leaders and media to try to stimulate broader conversations about Latino issues in Washington.

This spring, the project took a special angle: Because 2008 is an election year, the nine students enrolled in the course focused their research around political mobilization and voting rights in the Latino community.

“When the class first begun, the Democratic Caucus was starting and that was a great way for me to not only get introduced to the process involved, but also to visually see who was there and what kind of people I was going to talk to,” said sophomore Melissa Navarro, who did her research on political mobilization in Yakima, Wash.

The five females enrolled in the class this spring chose to research political mobilization for the Latino community, while the four males enrolled researched voting rights.

The course, which required students to conduct interviews with community members in Washington cities like Pasco and Toppenish, met once a week and culminated in a single-spaced paper detailing research findings, often stretching to 40 pages or longer.

“We’re all very tired. It’s always a very difficult thing to do. It’s extremely challenging. You don’t think that you can do the research right up front if you’ve never done a project like this before, or step in front of audiences and cameras and state officials and say this stuff,” said Apostolidis. “But the fact is that these issues are very much of the moment. There’s a huge lack of knowledge. People know there are issues that need to be dealt with and they’re looking for the kind of work we’re providing. It’s having an impact.”

This year, Professor of Sociology Gilbert Mireles joined Apostolidis in leading the course. He is impressed with what the students have already accomplished.

“These students are literally on the cutting edge of research on Latino communities in the Northwest. More significantly there is a very real possibility of meaningful social and political change because of the students’ work,” said Mireles in an e-mail.

This semester’s students generally agreed that the importance of their work, alongside the community-based component, made the class memorable.

“It’s interesting to hear things on the ground that you thought you’d only hear in the context of a social science paper. You hear people intuitively saying stuff that social scientists spend years figuring out, just through experiences in these towns. It’s nice to see that the academic work has a connection to the real world,” said junior Nick Dollar, who did his research in Granger and Toppenish.

Senior Emma Fulkerson, who worked alongside Dollar in Granger and Toppenish, agreed.

“It’s been really valuable to do research with actual people rather than just reading books. We do that kind of research as well, but it makes your work feel like it actually matters because people are going to read it and you know it’s actually going to affect people,” said Fulkerson.

For Navarro, the importance of the work in the class outweighs its heavy course-load.

“When else are you going to get this experience? When else are you going to have the opportunity not only do this much work, but also get out there and meet the people you’re actually writing about and reading about? Writing a 40-page paper is a small price to pay for when you’re actually talking about things that haven’t come up before and haven’t been written about,” said Navarro.

While Apostolidis plans to continue to offer courses like this in the future, few professors are following suit. Classes grounded entirely in community-based research are rare at Whitman.

Apostolidis, for one, would like to see that change.

“We have a responsibility here as people engaged with the world of ideas and knowledge to be trying to actively do something to solve the problems that exist in society at large,” said Apostolidis.

Junior Andrea Miller, who did her research on political mobilization in Pasco, would also like to see Whitman take more steps in this direction.

“I think that Whitman should come up with more classes like this: Where you would have to go out and talk to community members,” said Miller. “Professors should think about doing this sort of class, even though it is a lot of work, because it is well worth it.”

Apostolidis is offering a similar course in the fall. Politics 458: Racism and Latinos in Washington State will be a community-based research course allowing students to work on various topics surrounding the Latino community in Washington.

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