Student project 'goes beyond the class and research itself'

Christina Cherry (left), a senior human development and family science major, and Jasmine Felder, a master's student concentrating in counseling and development, say their research helps give a voice to families facing displacement through gentrification. Photo by Ron Aira.

Christina Cherry calls herself an emotional person. So when she heard stories of hardship told to her by African American residents of low-income housing projects in Alexandria, Va., the George Mason University senior took them to heart.

“For me this is definitely beyond the class and research itself,” Cherry said, recalling those conversations. “We want to get their voices heard. There are a lot of needs that are not being met in that community. But sometimes the higher-ups are not as willing to help with problems they are not necessarily exposed to. We’re here to create that pathway.”

That is the goal of a project being conducted by Cherry, a senior human development and family science major, and Jasmine Felder, a master’s student concentrating in counseling and development.

The project, being guided by Bethany Letiecq, an associate professor in George Mason’s College of Education and Human Development, focuses on African American residents who over the next several years will have to find alternative housing as their communities are redeveloped.

Cherry and Felder said they also heard about the residents’ day-to-day concerns, including a lack of affordable housing; difficulty finding childcare, jobs and health care; and a perception that they have few ways to speak to local government.

“From Mason’s point of view, this is a community engagement project,” Letiecq said. “At the very least these families want to be heard.”

The program pushes students to get out into the community and develop their interviewing and information-gathering techniques. They organized the information they collected into coherent presentations and are learning how to create linkages to policymakers.

Cherry and Felder helped do that when they spoke to Jessica Lurz, director of Alexandria’s Office of Community Services, and her team about the project. Letiecq also gave an update on her similar research into Alexandria’s low-income Latino families.

“They did a great job,” Lurz said. “It was really informative and engaging. It made us think how we might be creating barriers to services for certain populations. It had the team thinking about ways to reduce barriers when we can.”

For Cherry and Felder, there is a personal, practical application to their research, as well.

Cherry is considering joining AmeriCorps after graduation, so the ability to dig into and understand local issues is crucial. Felder wants to go into mental health counseling, especially with African American families, so knowing how to communicate with empathy is a must.

“I really like Mason’s focus on multiculturalism and social justice,” Felder said. “It’s definitely challenging, but they’re open to bringing opportunities for community engagement to the table, so you’re able to do stuff like this.”

“This is just a starting point,” said Cherry, who is working with a grant from Mason’s Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities and Research (OSCAR). “Hopefully, eventually, we will develop a partnership, so we’re able to work with the population more to really help the community.”