Last spring, Sonoma State anthropology majors Chelsea Bahr, Bené Rather-Taylor, Donny Williams and Wesley Wills were analyzing the needs of the HIV+ and AIDS-afflicted community in Sonoma County, while business major Karen Shimizu evaluated the local housing market. A semester later, the same research won all five students the title of SSU Community Scholar.
The Community Scholars program is a new senior thesis program focused on community-based and socially responsible research. Five students are selected to participate each year and, under the guidance of a faculty mentor, conduct an original research project on an issue of local relevance. Students receive class credit for their work along with a $500 award to use for expenses related to their research.
“[Dr. Carolyn Epple’s] anthropology class was asked by the Sonoma County Department of Health to do a needs assessment on housing for people living with HIV/AIDS in Sonoma County,” recalls Community Scholar Donny Williams. “The Community Scholars program has given us the chance to continue that research. This project has been a wonderful way to put to use the methods and theories that we learned.”
Each scholar is dedicated to the study of a different facet of the local community. Williams studied the relationships between those with both HIV/AIDS and mental illnesses and the problems they encounter finding social services in the North Bay. Similarly, Wesley Wills focused his research on the population of those affected with HIV/AIDS and physical disabilities. He has been studying the division between those who need housing modifications and the actual availability of modified living spaces.
“In general, Sonoma County is one of the most expensive places to live in the country,” says Wills. “Persons living with HIV/AIDS and physical disability are at a disadvantage when it comes to general living in Sonoma County.”
Also exploring housing issues in Sonoma County is Karen Shimizu, who has more than 15 years experience working with affordable housing. She decided to base her project on Sonoma County’s housing market and the matrix of agencies, nonprofit organizations and private groups that address the lack of local affordable housing. In examining this system, she also evaluated the efficacy of existing programs and partnerships between organizations.
Issues of transportation were studied by the Community Scholars as well. Chelsea Bahr examined the lives of Latinos living with HIV/AIDS in the Boyes Hot Springs area and the lack of adequate pubic transportation in that region. With her research, Bahr hopes to establish new bus routes in the area.
Bené Rather-Taylor took a narrative approach to her community research. Through a series of personal interviews she chronicled the stories of five to seven local women who are living with HIV/AIDS, and will use these narratives to create a pamphlet for distribution that tells their individual stories.
What began as a class assignment or personal interest for these students has become projects that have taken on lives of their own, wielding an impact not only the world of the scholars, but on that of the local HIV/AIDS community, the housing market and ultimately, Sonoma County itself.