Second Gambrell Faculty Fellows cohort explores economic mobility

Research & Social Change
Monday, August 31, 2020
Charlotte's skyline in the distance

Five faculty research teams have been selected for the second cohort of the Gambrell Faculty Fellows program. Their projects are diverse, covering multiple disciplines and using different research methods, but all touch in some way on the question of economic mobility in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. 

Growing Latinx families’ access to early childhood education

When it comes to economic mobility, the first few years of a child’s life can be key for influencing the pathways they follow for years to come. High-quality education in a child’s early years can set them up for success. Potochnik

But not everyone has equal access to high-quality early childhood education. And despite the fast-growing Latinx population in Charlotte, research shows they’re the least likely group to be enrolled in such programs. 

That’s why Stephanie Potochnick, Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology, and Ryan Kilmer, Professor in the Department of Psychological Science and Director of the Social Aspects of Health Initiative, plan to study Charlotte Latinx families’ access to programs for young children, between the ages of 3 and 5. Their project will establish a foundation for future work involving the community to promote access for more children. 

One reason for the project: Research has lagged the shifting demographics at play, especially in a fast-changing city like Charlotte. Roughly 1 in 6 Charlotte residents were born outside the U.S., a huge shift from decades past, and Spanish-speaking countries are the largest source of immigrants. 

Kilmer“There’s a huge demographic shift,” said Potochnick. Many Latinx families — who now make up a quarter of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools enrollment — face challenges around immigration status, language barriers, nonstandard work schedules and a lack of financial resources. “How do we support these families? What do they need?” 

The coronavirus pandemic has only intensified many of those challenges. With Latinx workers more likely to be employed in essential industries requiring in-person work, they’ve come to represent a disproportionate share of confirmed virus infections. At the same time, some school programs have shuttered or moved online-only, adding to the challenge of getting children enrolled.

Improving access to early childhood education would help the community as a whole improve economic mobility, an area where Charlotte has lagged. 

“It’s a key strategy around supporting economic mobility,” said Kilmer. “And we need to make sure that all children can access it.”

The researchers plan to use several methods, including demographic data and administrative records of early childhood education programs, interviews with stakeholders and community leaders, and focus groups with program staff and Latinx parents to assess the landscape Latinx families face and understand strengths, weaknesses and opportunities to improve the system. 

“We’re wanting to see best practices and strategies as we move forward with the project,” said Potochnick. “This is meant to lay the foundation.” 

Measuring the impact of the arts

There’s a general sense that the arts are positive for children, adults and communities as a whole. But that can be hard to measure or describe in concrete terms. 

Vaugh SchmutzThat’s why Vaughn Schmutz, Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, is planning to focus on the impact of arts organizations in Charlotte. Building on the work of 2019 Gambrell Faculty Fellows Ken Lambla and Meg Whalen, Schmutz will work to further understand the relationship between cultural capital, economic mobility and economic opportunity. 

“Arts-based programs and culture-based activities can create a sense of belonging in the community and help with economic mobility and racial equity,” said Schmutz. “Some of the effects are certainly hard to quantify, and I know people want to quantify the impact.”

And despite Charlotte’s intense focus on economic mobility over the past several years, Schmutz said there’s been relatively little work done to understand the role of the arts in fostering such change. That’s especially true compared to cities such as Seattle and Philadelphia, which have launched new initiatives to expand and highlight the role of arts and cultural organizations. 

Lambla and Whalen conducted a landscape mapping survey to identify and describe the world of arts and culture in Charlotte. Schmutz plans to conduct semi-structured interviews with both participants and providers of arts and cultural programming in Charlotte identified in the earlier project. 

Schmutz plans to learn more about their motivations, goals and experiences, as well as how people in both groups think about cultural capital and the role the arts play. Highlighting the number of participants and programs can make a stronger case for funding, Schmutz said. 

Ultimately, one goal for the next phase of research is to develop reliable measures of programs’ impact and create evidence-based resources to help guide practitioners and programs. Finding holistic ways to answer big questions such as how access to art helps at-risk youth, or how a cultural program helps returning prisoners reintegrate into the job market, would help both the community and arts programs. 

“One challenge that we’ve heard from a lot of people and organizations that are doing this work is it’s difficult to find the time and resources to measure the impact that they’re having,” said Schmutz. “There’s a lot of work going on out there, and we want to help these programs assess their social impact.”

Designing for affordable housing

There’s been a big focus on increasing the amount of affordable housing in Charlotte in recent years. But the conversation tends to center around financial instruments, such as subsidies and tax credits, that can be used to build apartments. 

Nadia AndersonNadia M. Anderson, Associate Professor in the College of Arts + Architecture and Director of the City.Building.Lab., hopes to change that with a renewed focus on the physical characteristics of buildings themselves. Anderson is planning to create a “Design Toolkit for Affordable Homeownership” that will offer strategies and examples of how to build for-sale housing in ways that make it affordable and enable more people to buy. 

“I think that’s something that’s been a gap,” she said. “I’m hoping with this project to be able to take a little bite into what we really need to do to be able to build houses that are affordable for people below the median income to actually own.”

For better or worse, home ownership is one of the most important wealth-building vehicles in the U.S. Decades of policies such as discriminatory lending, redlining and racist deed covenants have locked many Black families out of homeownership and contributed to the racial wealth gap. Anderson said that’s one reason it’s key to promote ownership in addition to building more rental housing. 

In Charlotte, most of the land is zoned for single-family homes. That restricts what can be built there, and how densely, restricting the supply of housing. Anderson said her toolkit could include ideas about how to change requirements such as allowing smaller lot sizes or different site configurations, in ways that allow building at a lower cost. 

Protests about racial injustice in Charlotte and fast-rising costs over the past several years have added urgency to the affordable housing issue. Anderson said she saw that especially after the 2016 police shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott, a Black man. People began talking about the intersection of problems such as policing inequalities, gentrification and displacement, and health disparities. 

“People were suddenly showing up at City Council meetings and saying we don’t have housing and connecting those issues,” she said. Those connections have only become more apparent with the coronavirus pandemic and renewed protest movement this summer.

Anderson said she hopes the toolkit will help decision makers and neighborhoods see what different types of housing could look like, and hopefully demystify more innovative design approaches. 

“A lot of times, ideas get rejected because nobody understands what they look like,” she said. 

Anderson said she frequently thinks about Cherry, the historically black neighborhood just outside of uptown where most housing has been torn down and replaced with far more expensive, far larger houses in recent years. 

“I remember going there and in a year seeing the complete transformation of a neighborhood,” she said. “Is there a way to allow new development in and not push everyone who’s there out?”

Using a game to interest students in computer science careers

When it comes to computer science, Julio Bahamon knows there’s often a negative perception that computing careers are only for “certain types” of students. 

Meera Sridhar“We have this narrative that where you were born should dictate what kind of job you have,” said Bahamon, Teaching Assistant Professor in the College of Computing and Informatics. “There’s a lot of potential that is out there but essentially untapped.”

That’s why Bahamon and Audrey Smith Rorrer, a Research Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science, and Meera Sridhar, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Software and Information Systems, are designing a game to interest K-12 students of all backgrounds in computer science.

The game will focus on cybersecurity and online privacy, with storylines designed for elementary, middle and high school students in traditionally underserved, lower socioeconomic status communities. 

Rorrer“It’s important to create interest,” said Bahamon. And cybersecurity and online privacy are ever-more pervasive topics in our lives, especially as teens learn to navigate a world of social networks and financial platforms from their phones. 

There will be English and Spanish versions. Bahamon said one important consideration will be creating a game that runs well on more basic computers, such as the Chromebooks most Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students have, and doesn’t require a super-fast internet connection. 

“We have a very mature game design program and a very successful cybersecurity program at UNC Charlotte that give us the expertise to create this,” said Bahamon. 

“Games give us a very powerful opportunity to get access to participate in something,” he said, “to engage young minds.”

Julio BahamonAnd a game delivered online is especially important in the COVID-19 era, when students are learning remotely for the foreseeable future. 

Bahamon’s hope is that by engaging students from nontraditional backgrounds through an engaging game, they can generate interest in cybersecurity and computer science more broadly. The researchers will build on their existing relationships with three CMS computer science magnet schools to introduce and study the impact of the game.

“We are really interested in engaging in efforts that can improve upward mobility in Charlotte STEM and related fields can lead to better opportunities for our citizens”

Building a more equitable post-Covid food system 

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed inequality at every level of American society, including in our food system. 

Low-paid grocery workers were declared essential and suddenly thrust onto the front lines, tasked with restocking stores enforcing mask mandates while worrying about layoffs. School systems were left scrambling to feed millions of children who rely on schools for basic nutrition. And farmers were left to slaughter herds and flocks when meatpacking plants shut down, while consumers saw beef and chicken prices jump on scantly stocked shelves.

Peterson“What the pandemic really brought to light is things we knew but weren’t really visible, including how unequal impacts to parts of our food system are,” said Colleen Hammelman, Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences. “It’s even more abundantly clear that the means to access, acquire and produce the food people need to be happy and healthy are uneven.”

She’s working with Nicole Peterson, Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology, on a project to study the local food system — and how we might improve it. 

Their plan is an outgrowth of earlier work done with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Food Policy Council, whose previous State of the Plate reports have highlighted issues such as food deserts. People who live in communities without grocery stores or fresh produce are often forced to drive long distances or take circuitous bus routes to acquire healthy food. Or, they might rely on small neighborhood stores and dollar stores, which stock almost exclusively processed foods. 

“For them, that’s a real struggle,” said Hammelman. Food deserts are associated with worse health outcomes and more problems like diabetes and obesity among residents. 

Peterson and Hammelman will work to assess the assets and gaps in our food system, as well as how the pandemic and economic crisis have affected household food insecurity in Mecklenburg County. They’ll be surveying households and assessing organizations to get a fuller picture of what makes up our food landscape, and how we might improve it. 

The pandemic has already caused people to adapt, with new feeding programs for students learning remotely, increased demand on food pantries and restaurants taking innovative steps like selling dry goods directly to consumers. 

“We’re talking about systems and people who are trying to make things work in a rapidly changing world,” said Peterson. “Knowing the food system doesn't work for everyone under the best of conditions, what changes and adaptations can be applied to the system when things are normal?”

The need for a more resilient food system won’t go away once the coronavirus subsides, either. Peterson said long-term, slower-moving threats like climate change loom, and the weeks of food shortages we saw in the spring — unfamiliar to many Americans — illustrate why we need to adapt.

“We had weeks where we couldn’t get flour. I think we finally have had a communal experience of lack of access,” said Peterson. “What do we need to make a more just food system?”

Hammelman said the aim is not just to highlight neighborhoods that need better access to food, but to identify collaborations and partnerships that are working to empower communities. Although people tend to think of the food system as run by faceless supermarket chains and big agribusiness, Hammelman said more resources such as farmer’s markets, local farms, gleaners and other community-led assets are available, if we look.

“The solution there is not just ‘OK, fine, let’s bring in a Food Lion,’” she said. “How do we use this as an opportunity to create a more resilient food system?”