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Rebels Research for a Cause

Sociology-based program connects students to community issues and social justice causes.

Business and Community  |  Jun 22, 2017  |  By Karyn S. Hollingsworth
Gold Butte National Monument Petroglyphs

UNLV undergraduate research through the SLICES program helped support the case for making the Gold Butte region a national monument. (Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau)

Even as a brand new sociology faculty member, Anna C. Smedley-López had a big vision.

In fall 2014, she approached her department chair, Robert Futrell, with an idea for a research-based service learning program. She wanted to take her Ethnic Groups in Contemporary Society class to Southern California and work on a project about the intersection of food justice, immigration, race and place, and socioeconomic status.

Knowing that launching such programs can be daunting, “he advised me to start local and smaller, but I don’t do small for very long,” said Smedley-López, assistant professor in residence. “I reached out to the Office of Student Engagement and Diversity, and they helped me start a class project. It just grew from there.”

‘Small’ Start

That’s how SLICES, or Service Learning Initiative for Community Engagement in Sociology, was born, and Smedley-López added SLICES program coordinator to her job title. The program pairs UNLV undergrads with Las Vegas organizations to address racial, ethnic, and immigration equity and education. But unpacking such big picture issues can’t be done in a semester. So students work over multiple semesters to increase their understanding of the community and hone their leadership, communications, team-building, and networking skills. Their work isn’t mere class exercise: they are affecting policy development and funding for community services.

Since 2015, SLICES students have employed a variety of research methods to:

  • assist political asylees in the Immigrants Justice Initiative
  • address prison pipeline issues among African-American women for the Las Vegas chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women
  • support the Gold Butte National Monument designation
  • identify financial aid and other resources for undocu/DACAmented students through UNLV’s UndocuNetwork
  • offer educational programming about the local Black Lives Matter movement
  • examine student belonging and success with The Intersection, UNLV’s new academic multicultural resource center.

Not Your Everyday Student Project

The intent is for the research to encourage action and affect social change. “Research shouldn’t live in the office,” Smedley-López said.

Community-mindedness is what sets SLICES’ research apart from traditional service learning, she added. Community-based participatory action research projects explicitly incorporate the community in identifying, designing, implementing, and disseminating research.

Futrell said SLICES fulfills the teaching, research, and service mission of the university, along with a fourth pillar – community engagement.

“They’re making sure sociology is connected to the community — taking research insights outside these walls and making a difference in the ways we think about the world. Anna has done an incredible job,” he said.

Micajah Daniels, a junior public health major and sociology minor, and Eli Thompson, a sophomore sociology major, led a team of students in collecting data about minority health coalition building for the Nevada Minority Health and Equity Coalition. Their project took first place in the Business and Liberal Arts session of UNLV’s Office of Undergraduate Research Symposium this year. The two also testified at the Nevada Legislature for restoration of funding and personnel for the Nevada Office of Minority Health.

Daniels’ research also includes work with the 100 Black Women and The Intersection, for which she now serves as an advisory board member.

Participating in SLICES allows her to be a change agent, Daniels said. “If we spread to the masses the research and knowledge that we have by educating and involving people and caring about their concerns and needs, we can then have a bigger conversation and take more informed action from there.”

Still Growing

Last year, the program added peer facilitators (former participants who guide new student research teams), and an explicit research component tied to class learning objectives. This year, to give non-sociology students a pathway into the program, SLICES registered as a UNLV student organization and added a student advisory board.

Along the way, the program has amassed nearly a dozen campus and community partners, who often take research findings and incorporate them into future programming.

Harriet Barlow, executive director of The Intersection, has been a SLICES supporter from the beginning. SLICES students served as a focus group of sorts in the planning of services and programs for the center. A second group tackled research about how developing a sense of belonging impacts academic performance and student retention.

“We have an agreement that no matter what, every semester we will be clients of SLICES,” Barlow said. “The research and information we looked at is and will continue to be extremely important as we move forward -- so important that we will be developing a program from this group’s research. I appreciate the opportunity for continued work with SLICES.”

Looking Ahead

For her work with SLICES, Smedley-López won UNLV’s first Office of Community Engagement Service-Learning Award this spring, and she’s a past recipient of the Nevada Regents Service Award, which provides funding for two part-time program assistants.

She’s confident about the impact of the program. “The students give me so much hope about the future of our society, particularly in today’s political climate. They make me feel like we’re going to be so much better.”

Smedley-López looks forward to continued collaboration with the College of Liberal Arts to offer more co-curricular programming and professional development opportunities. Finding additional funding sources to sustain the program is also a priority.

“What SLICES is doing is very liberal arts-focused in general. We are producing professionals, and they are contributors to social change,” she said. “They have the knowledge and language to do the work.”