Two new research projects investigate poverty at a hyper-local level

"No Place Like Home: Voices and Visions of the Housing Crisis" and "A Community Garden Green Kitchen: Diversifying Family Income Sources in Watsonville" address root causes of poverty in Santa Cruz county.

April 20, 2016

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From left to right: Steve McKay, Andres Arias, Miriam Greenberg, Edson Perez and Flora Lu presented their research at a recent Blum Center event
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Provost Sustainability Intern Edson Perez, a junior doubling majoring in Environmental Studies and Earth Science, also spoke about his work building connections between Watsonville families and UCSC.
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Andres Arias, a UCSC senior who is double majoring in Sociology and Latin American and Latino Studies, shared what he learned working with McKay and Greenberg.

Thanks to support from the Blum Center at UC Santa Cruz, two research projects are underway that explore the impact of poverty in Santa Cruz county.

Environmental Studies Associate Professor Flora Lu is working on a project about diversifying income sources in Watsonville through community gardening, and Miriam Greenberg and Steve McKay from the Sociology Department are exploring the county’s housing crisis.

On April 18, the researchers presented their initial findings.

McKay pointed out that Santa Cruz is one of only 4 counties in California where the poverty rate rose between 2012-2014. In addition, the area is repeatedly listed as one of the least affordable places to live in entire United States.

In nearby Watsonville, Lu also cited some devastating statistics. The US Census found that from 2009-2013, 20.7% of residents in Watsonville were below the poverty level, compared to a statewide rate of 15.9%. Unemployment hovers around 14%, double the state average. In 2009-2013 the per capita income in Watsonville was $16,263, compared to $29,527 for California. 

Lu, McKay and Greenberg’s mission is bold. Through their projects, they propose to address local poverty through community-initiated, student-engaged research and community action - key themes of the Blum Center.

McKay’s previous project Working for Dignity, resulted in  the founding of the Economic Justice Alliance. The group organizes workshops and clinics that educate low wage workers on some of the common issues McKay and his team encountered, such as wage theft.

Building on these connections is "No Place Like Home: Voices and Visions of the Housing Crisis." McKay and Greenberg are deepening partnerships with local community organizations like the California Rural Legal Assistance, Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County, Shelter Project, Community Bridges, and Nueva Vista to help identify new research questions related to affordable housing - or for many - the lack of it.

Similarly, Lu is also fostering collaboration with community members. Her angle is through experiential learning, a method she argues gives the critical skills needed to be civically engaged, agents of positive change. Lu believes this is essential to foster participatory governance, a space she describes as where resilient, viable bottom-up structures are developed in recognition of the central role of community members.

She pointed to Alternative Spring Break, a week long service learning program that recently took 25 students to Watsonville to help with the community garden Lu founded with Calabasas Elementary School. In addition, UCSC students volunteer during the school year at the Calabasas community farm and the after-school, garden-based educational program.

“The outskirts of Watsonville are considered a food desert, where many families have low-access to fresh, healthy, affordable food, both due to limited economic means as well as living more than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store,” said Lu. “This contributes to high rates of obesity and diabetes among low-income residents.”

The community garden helps provide food security to the community. It also cultivates culture and belonging, shared Lu. Provost Sustainability Intern Edson Perez, a junior doubling majoring in Environmental Studies and Earth Science, also spoke about his work building connections between Watsonville families and UCSC, and the growing parent-led organization increasing engagement with the community garden and Calabasas Elementary more broadly.

Working with local residents, students engaged in projects like the construction of two garden sheds (one to be used as a green kitchen), installing an irrigation system, and building raised vegetable beds. They also learned about the socio-political and economic marginalization affecting the area.

“Research like this puts students in conversation with community members,” shared Andres Arias, a UCSC senior who is double majoring in Sociology and Latin American and Latino Studies and is a research assistant for McKay and Greenberg.

Also receiving a Blum Center grant for the 2015/2016 academic year was anthropology professor Annapurna Pandey for a proposal titled “Dry Toilet: A solution to sanitation crisis In India.” More information about Pandey’s work forthcoming.