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Lecture: “Science and Religion: the myth of conflict”

COSW Faculty Recruitment Committee Meeting


mobilemarketWhen the local foods movement started gaining momentum, it caught the attention of Dr. Patricia Sharpe. She wondered how the growing interest in community gardening and farmers’ markets might affect lower-income populations. Would the push for local produce make healthy food more accessible for everyone? Dr. Sharpe was determined to find out, and her background in public health made her uniquely suited for researching the issues of food access and behaviors.

“It’s tragic to me that not everybody in the United States has the ability to feed their families nutritious food,” says Dr. Sharpe, and her current research project seeks to identify the obstacles that impede healthy eating. “Food choices are complex,” she explains, and “people do the best they can with what they know.” Her project, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health through 2017, aims to give a platform to lower-income South Carolinians for expressing their concerns about the access and affordability of healthy food. She’s chosen two communities for her research: one in the Upstate and another in the Pee Dee region. These two communities share a similar level of poverty and distance to food retailers.

Dr. Sharpe refers to the project as “community-engaged research,” emphasizing the trust that must be cultivated between researchers and participants. Her team will conduct interviews and hold focus groups with community leaders and residents. This mode of research requires good rapport. In order to be successful, there must be a “level of trust between the researcher and the community.” The study has field offices in both communities that are staffed primarily with local professionals. Having local staff is incredibly beneficial to the project. The field office staff know their hometown communities and are better able to build relationships and gain the trust of the study’s participants.

Dr. Sharpe is grateful for her partnerships with local organizations that are “open to learning the strengths and weaknesses of their programs.” Dr. Sharpe is continually pleased by each community’s generosity, noting that they are “willing to trust the researcher and […] to share information that’s essential to carrying out the study.”

The project combines community engagement with technology. The research team includes two geographers who are training the field office staff to collect Global Positioning System data. The data will be used to create a map of places to buy food, including everything from grocery stores to fast-food establishments. The goal is to accurately characterize the food environment in these lower-income neighborhoods. Dr. Sharpe notes that there are barriers to getting to the grocery store in these communities. About half of the community residents do not have their own means of transportation for grocery shopping, something that others take for granted.

“People have a right to be able to feed their families,” says Dr. Sharpe. Access to nutritious food “is a health issue, but it’s also a social justice issue.” She hopes the project will bring national attention to the limited access to healthy food in lower-income areas. “Having access to safe, nutritious, and affordable food is a human right,” claims Dr. Sharpe, and her project aims to pinpoint the barriers that deny that right and evaluate potential community-based solutions.

M MitchellIf there’s one thing that the South Carolina National Youth in Transition Database (SC NYTD) research team is passionate about, it’s empowering youth in foster care. According to Dr. Monique Mitchell, SC NYTD Research Director, that passion can be found in their mottos: “Staying connected” and “More than a data collection.”

“We want our youth to know that they are not numbers crunched in our system,” Dr. Mitchell said. According to her, including youth voices is key to transforming the systems that are designed to help them. One way that she and her team of researchers and graduate students at the Center for Child and Family Studies have done this is by expanding NYTD’s scope in South Carolina.

NYTD is a federal data collection that evaluates the Chafee Independent Living Program and is required in every state. Most states tend to provide youth with a standard set of closed-ended questions. However, in South Carolina, the Department of Social Services (DSS) has partnered with the University of South Carolina to transform a standard program evaluation into a longitudinal research study called “Voices and Visions of Youth in Transition.” The SC NYTD team still gathers the necessary data, but they also ask open-ended questions, giving youth ages 17 to 21 the opportunity to tell their stories and share their experiences, difficulties, and dreams.

Ms. Louisa Vann, SC NYTD Research Associate, works closely with the youth, locating them, inviting them to take the survey, and administering the survey via phone. “That’s what’s really great about this initiative—asking young people what they’re experiencing,” she said. “I think it’s empowering for them to share their voice and know that their voice actually matters.”

The study will consist of five years of data collection for each cohort of youth, who will be interviewed at ages 17, 19, and 21. Surveying began with the first cohort in 2010 with almost 300 participants, and the data collection will include at least three cohorts of youth.

While the amount of data gathered may seem overwhelming, the team is using their research for advocacy purposes.

“Youth face a lot of challenges. They’re expected to go out at 18, they often can’t go back to their families of origin, they change schools frequently,” said Ms. Toni Jones, SC NYTD Project Coordinator and SC NYTD Youth Voice Co-Facilitator. She explained that one of the original purposes of the study is to “figure out how we can support youth and give them the best opportunity to have successful lives as adults.”

As Dr. Mitchell noted, “Youth are so sick and tired of hearing the negative outcomes” associated with aging out of care. “We give them the opportunity to tell us the good, too,” she said. And when she and her team ask youth about their goals, “the youth know their dreams matter too.”

Part of SC NYTD’s work is to help youth achieve those dreams by providing them with the resources and connections they need to succeed. For example, while the researchers only survey a select population of youth, the SC NYTD website serves all young people in foster care—including a “tips and tricks” section to help youth with job applications, scholarship searches, and housing. Further, through leadership programs like the SC NYTD Youth Advisory Panel, youth in foster care have input on the project itself and develop permanent connections that Ms. Jones said make the advisory panel “like a family.”

The SC NYTD team loves the individual impact their work has on participants, and they hope that their research will have a broader influence as well. “I hope that other agencies and youth are able to hear what the youth have to say, and that it ultimately shapes policy at the national and state level,” Ms. Vann said.

It’s also obvious that the youth have had a transformative effect on the team members themselves.

“I’m blown away by how much the youth share with me,” Ms. Vann said, citing both their openness to the survey and the connections they form with her. For example, it’s not unusual for the youth she’s surveyed to call and wish her happy holidays or share a piece of good news. “The majority of us haven’t met face to face, but we have this relationship.”

For Dr. Mitchell, the SC NYTD Project is an opportunity to give back. “I transitioned out of care, and I know personally the struggles they’re dealing with,” she said. “I want youth to know that they’re not alone, that someone cares about their well-being.”

BeerIntPageStepping into the office of Dr. Jenay Beer is like stepping into a science fiction film—telepresence systems zoom past and humanoid robotics begin talking. Dr. Beer’s world is one in which the study of human interactions and social work collide with engineering and robotics technology.

With an advanced degree in engineering psychology, Dr. Beer has a unique background that allows her to use technological applications to better the lives of those who are struggling socially.

“Currently our work has two focuses,” says Dr. Beer. “One is through the SmartHOME™ initiative where I am working alongside Dr. Sue Levkoff. Through this initiative, we are helping older adults remain independent longer. The second is child-focused, where we are using robots to help children learn and overcome disabilities such as autism.”

The idea of elderly parents and loved ones being able to remain independently in their own home is fast becoming a reality with the work being done at the University of South Carolina’s SmartHOME™ initiative. Using technology called telepresence systems, loved ones and medical professionals can check in on elderly individuals at home through a tablet device on wheels.

“Think of it as Skype or FaceTime,” says Dr. Beer. “You are able to connect to a tablet in the patient’s home to check in on him or her. But here’s the cool part,” she says with a smile. “The tablet is on wheels so you can move around the home and find mom or dad, grandma or grandpa—whoever the loved one may be. You can move with mom from the living room to the kitchen while she takes her medication. You can make sure dad has the proper food in the refrigerator, all without stepping foot in the home.”

Dr. Beer points out that this is the next generation of caregiving, especially for working households where around-the-clock caregiving is not as feasible.

The second focus of Dr. Beer’s work is with children and youth.

“It can be difficult for students to stay engaged when working on homework problems,” says Dr. Beer. “The humanoid robot we are working with has the ability to do multiplication problems with a child. If the child answers incorrectly, the robot explains why the answer is incorrect and gives the child a second opportunity to get the answer right.”

Dr. Beer and her team are in the planning stages of using this same type of robot in applications such as music therapy. This technology could help engage a child with autism or one who faces social phobias.

“Through all of these research efforts, our intention is never to replace a person,” emphasizes Dr. Beer. “We are simply creating tools that help us enhance lives, promote healthy lifestyles, and impact social connectivity.”

Dr. Beer credits her team and her students with the progress made in these research efforts.

“My favorite part of this job is being able to work with students from social work, psychology, engineering, and computing. It’s by learning from each person’s interdisciplinary perspective that we are able to advance our efforts. As my students graduate, I hope to remain connected to them and continue to learn from them wherever they go and whatever they create.”

In the next three to five years, Dr. Beer hopes to have a better understanding of what we should and should not focus on when it comes to robotic interactions in society.
“The more research we are able to conduct with these technologies, the more confident we can be moving forward. No robot revolutions happening in this storyline,” she laughs. “Simply bettering lives through the use of technology.”
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Rayford CropRevisedFlagTonia Rayford admits that when she entered USC’s MSW program in August 2012 after 30 years in the Air Force, the change wasn’t easy. “It’s a big transition, but it’s a good one,” she said, noting that her transition to civilian life came just at the right time. “I love coming to campus. I love jeans and flip flops. I love that people call me by my first name.”

But it is a different world—both within academia and beyond—especially for veterans like Rayford who have served multiple combat tours. The growing needs of military and veteran populations are part of what prompted Rayford to apply for the College of Social Work’s new military certificate program. “We need to be ready to support our troops when they come home,” Rayford said, citing the numerous factors that affect the health and well-being of service members and their families, from losing friends to facing divorce. “Even if they don’t have scars you can see, they have scars.”

Nallo 2The College of Social Work at USC has long been building bridges between countries and cultures—from crafting key partnerships with social workers in South Korea to engaging with a wide range of organizations within South Carolina. Most recently, the College of Social Work expanded its reach to partner with social work programs in India by co-sponsoring the International Conference on Women and Millennium Development Goals in Gujarat, India.

The conference was borne out of USC’s collaboration with the faculty of social work at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, and USC faculty and alumna also played key roles in the success of the conference. College of Social Work alumna Dr. Noël Busch-Armendariz delivered the keynote address, speaking on violence against women and how improving women’s lives will improve development. “The fact that the College of Social Work at USC is present and engaged in many countries around the world is impressive and says a lot about leadership,” said Dr. Busch-Armendariz, now a social work professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “It makes me proud as a graduate.”

Kirk A. Foster decided he needed the tools of a social worker when, as a young minister, he felt his skills were inadequate to help parishioners who were losing jobs and struggling against poverty.

His ability to use tools―from mapping neighborhood boundaries by non-traditional means to analyzing social networks―helped him earn his doctoral degree in social work in 2011 from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., and join the USC College of Social Work as an assistant professor in August 2011.

Now some of his research is contained in a book to be published next spring called Chasing the American Dream: Understanding What Shapes Our Fortunes. Its other authors are social scientists Mark Robert Rank, a professor of social welfare at Washington University, and Thomas A. Hirschl, a professor of development sociology at Cornell University.

Dr. Arlene Andrews started her career in social work helping women abused by men. But the last part of her career has been devoted to helping men become better supporters of families.

Men sometimes fail to support their children because they’ve failed to support themselves—spiritually and materially, Andrews said.

“A social worker’s goal is justice, particularly restorative justice, to try to find a win-win situation where everyone gains,” she said. “Our goal is to create strong, healthy families. In order to do that, you have to work with every member of the family.”

CommunitiesGrowing change in our communities

If there’s one thing that Mr. Willie King is passionate about, it’s his garden. “If I could, I’d be out there 24 hours, seven days a week,” he said. “Sometimes during the day, that’s all I think about—what can I do to make it better? How can I pull more people in?”

As the Lyon Street Community Garden Manager and now the Lyon Street Community Vice President, Mr. King will be the first to say that the garden isn’t his—it’s the community’s. And all he wants to see, besides a great crop, is more community involvement.

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