As a recent Stepping Stones Grantee Partner (I’m an associate professor at Trinity University in Washington, D.C.), I partnered with students in three of my courses over two semesters to develop, conduct, and analyze two community-based research projects to benefit D.C.-area women.
Trinity University takes seriously its role as a member of our community and one of the ways we work to fulfill our social justice mission is by partnering with other community-based organizations to identify and address our area’s needs.
Our community work takes a number of different forms both on and off campus. Not only do we encourage our students to volunteer, we require students to engage in course-based service projects that benefit our community while reinforcing and extending what they learn in class.
And, unusual for an undergraduate institution, we also provide opportunities for undergraduates to perform hands-on research—something which is usually limited to graduate students at larger universities. These opportunities not only introduce them to sophisticated and rigorous concepts and methods, but allows them to use their own community as a laboratory and a lens, adding depth, dimension, and a grounding in reality to their college educations.
Our students learn “in the ivory tower” as well as “in the neighborhood.”
Our two community-based research projects had different, yet complimentary, focuses. In one course, my students and I conducted three focus groups bringing together low-income single mothers in the D.C. area to gauge their potential interest in starting their own small businesses.
Our key finding was that these women believed that they would never be able to get ahead as someone else’s employee. They saw small business ownership as the only way they would ever be able to get ahead financially while balancing the competing (and often conflicting) needs of work and family. We compiled our research findings and analysis into a comprehensive report.
Our research explored both the opportunities and advantages women envisioned when considering self-employment, as well as the obstacles they perceived to be keeping them from making the leap from wage employment to micro entrepreneurship. One of the biggest obstacles our research participants identified was a lack of information about resources out there to help them plan—then actually launch—their businesses (primary need, start-up funding).
This finding neatly segued into our second, parallel research project: an online directory of D.C.-area micro enterprise assistance organizations, a project that we researched and compiled over two semesters.
My students and I developed a research instrument to find out specific information about each organization we studied. We compiled a list of local organizations to survey, and students tenaciously contacted these organizations, surveying them then analyzing survey results to judge whether they met our criteria for inclusion. The Association for Enterprise Opportunity’s member directory served as the foundation for this asset-mapping project.
We were able to build on the information they provided and we eventually identified 25 organizations in the Washington metropolitan area that provided micro loans, business training and technical assistance, and/or other relevant information and assistance that women in our community can use to make their entrepreneurial dreams a reality.
Roxana Moayedi is associate professor of sociology at Trinity University, a Grantee Partner of The Women’s Foundation.