Action Anthropology and Pedagogy: University-Community Collaborations in Setting Policy

Article excerpt

This article describes a student-led, community-participatory project focused on reducing the burden of childhood lead poisoning in rental housing. A multidisciplinary group of students and faculty worked with community members. We compiled the social, public health, economic, and policy information on the human and fiscal costs of childhood lead poisoning. This analysis was done for community advocates to use to persuade policymakers to enact a local law strengthening the prevention of childhood lead poisoning in rental property. In conducting this work, the students gained experience in qualitative research methods, quantitative data analysis, the health consequences of lead exposure, health policy, urban health, science writing, and public presentation.

Key words: urban health, community-participatory research, lead poisoning, teaching, action anthropology

Introduction

In common with many other United States cities, Syracuse, New York has a wealth of institutions of higher education, located in a city, where according to the 2000 United States census, one-third of residents live in poverty. This situation presents a moral challenge to privileged academics occupying tax free land in the midst of devastated neighborhoods to use their knowledge and skills in the service of helping the community improve itself. It also presents an opportunity for higher education to move beyond the classroom to engage the real-world problems within walking distance of the ivy-clad buildings. This article describes a university-community collaboration focused on reducing the burden of childhood lead poisoning in rental housing. The project took place over two years. The project's goals were: (1) to partner with community members to compile the social, public health, economic, and policy information on the human and fiscal costs of childhood lead poisoning; (2) to help community advocates create materials to use to persuade policymakers to enact a local law strengthening the prevention of childhood lead poisoning in rental property; and (3) to have students conduct this project in order to teach them about qualitative data analysis, quantitative data analysis, health effects of lead exposure, health policy, urban health, science writing, and public presentation. The students included one medical student, one anthropology graduate student, five undergraduate students, and one high school student. The students and a community member are all coauthors on this article.

In the course of this project, the students conducted:

* A major review of published studies and compilation of local quantitative and qualitative data on lead poisoning;

* A legal and policy analysis that compares lead prevention policy in New York State, Massachusetts, and local ordinances in Rochester and New York City;

* An analysis of the fiscal and human cost of childhood lead poisoning in Syracuse;

* A set of meetings at which the students, in collaboration with community stakeholders, presented their findings in clear, jargon-free formats to elected officials and neighborhood residents.

Background

This project is part of an ongoing set of activities in Syracuse, New York, in which university faculty have worked in collaboration with community non-profit agencies and activists. For more than a dozen years, two of the authors (Lane and Rubinstein) have been part of a university/community collaboration addressing health disparities due to racism, structural violence, and environmental injustice (Lane and Rubinstein 2008; Rubinstein and Lane 2010). Our collaborators include faculty and students from three institutions of higher education (Syracuse University, Upstate Medical University, and Lemoyne College) and community-based colleagues from two non-profit agencies (Syracuse Model Neighborhood Facility and the Center for Community Alternatives).

Our previous work with this community coalition led us to realize that Syracuse was an epicenter for childhood lead poisoning in New York State. …