University of South Carolina

Women’s and Gender Studies initiative focuses on Midlands municipality

What started as an idea to put interdisciplinary ideals into action has become a multi-faceted community project for the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Carolina.

Called the Women’s Well-being Initiative, the project is focused on the Cayce/West Columbia area with the goal of improving the welfare of women and girls in the municipality. Cayce/West Columbia was selected because of its proximity to the Columbia campus and its demographic mix of socio-economic and racial groups.

“The Women’s and Gender Studies program began in 1971, but for many years the program was focused on establishing and maintaining its legitimacy and stature within the University,” said Lynn Weber, a psychology professor who was director of the program from 1996 to 2007. “A few years ago, we wanted to figure out how to focus our  interdisciplinary strengths for social change and social justice, and we wanted to establish an educational and research presence in the community.”

That desire spawned the Women’s Well-being Initiative, which involves Women’s and Gender Studies associate faculty from art, English, psychology, anthropology, social work, and other University units. Private fundraising brought in $100,000, most of it from a single anonymous donor, to launch the effort.

To cultivate buy-in from the community, faculty members and graduate students identified and interviewed about 70 key community leaders and later established a community advisory board.

Thus far, the initiative has featured several arts-based community outreach projects, including murals at two schools and an art exhibit created by adolescent girls in an arbitration program for first-time offenders operated by the Department of Juvenile Justice. The latter project, directed by Carolina art educator Olga Ivashkevich, was on display in the Russell House earlier this fall.

Psychology faculty member Rhonda Johnson has begun work on a project aimed at supporting African American women engaged in community work. Erica Gibson in anthropology is studying access to health care among pregnant Latina women. Shauna Cooper in psychology is planning to bring together small groups of teenage girls from the area, with the goal of better understanding their perspectives and experiences within the community. And social work faculty member Darcy Freeman is planning a project focused on young girls, nutrition, and community gardening.

“We started this initiative in 2001, but community work takes time to build a high level of trust,” said DeAnne Messias, a nursing professor and co-director of the initiative with Weber. “We’re starting to see solid evidence of buy-in from the community: they’re coming to us now with ideas they want to launch.”


Posted: 12/04/09 @ 12:00 AM | Updated: 06/09/10 @ 3:50 PM | Permalink