This blog post is a recap of the Office of Community Engagement (OCE) Faculty Lunch & Learn session on 10/12/2020.
Dr. Na Youn Lee, Prof. Amy Fisher, and Ms. Patricia Digby along with panelists Tanya Rhodes Smith, Austin Conner, and Jaycee Brown, joined us for the second session in our Faculty Lunch & Learn series on October 12 to discuss the impact of the Voter Empowerment Project, a student-led research project to increase voter participation in rural communities while also giving social work students hands-on, educational experiences in the field.
Created in 2019, the Voter Empowerment Project (VEP) partners with local and nationwide organizations like MS Votes to assess voter needs and barriers to voting, a large part of the reason some people neglect their right to vote. “The practice of voting is very complex,” says Smith, co-founder of the National Social Work Voter Mobilization Campaign. “These systemic barriers create and reinforce engagement barriers.” These barriers create attitudes within communities that voting is practically useless. Projects like the Mobilization Campaign and the VEP are aimed at identifying and addressing these barriers.
In partnership with the Mobilization Campaign, the VEP trains social work students on the importance of voting and voter engagement, especially in the framework of the social work profession. Before, according to our panelists, voting engagement had not been a central focus in the social work profession, but the Voter Empowerment Project is just one of many rising efforts to bring attention to the importance of voter engagement in social work.
Fisher, associate professor of social work at the University of Mississippi, describes the three levels of social work focus: micro, mezzo, and macro. She explains that the VEP is simultaneously working at both the micro and macro levels of social work. While the project is intervening at the community level, there is also the central question of how to get the individual to the polls despite these barriers
To find engagement barriers, participants like Conner, a doctoral social work student, went into communities on election day in 2018 and evaluated polling locations in different areas. Students conducted a needs assessment within rural and nonrural communities to compare the barriers that Smith discussed and found a real need for accessible voting policies.
Dr. Lee, assistant professor of social work at the University of Mississippi, says that the VEP created an almost immediate increase in voter awareness, at least in the preliminary evaluation stage. Among social work students, this project had already begun to change attitudes toward voter engagement as social work and voter engagement as a whole. “They never thought about voting as part of the social work mission,” says Lee, “It was very overly positive.” Other analysis and evaluation is still ongoing, but this trend is an exciting one for both Lee and Fisher as political advocacy becomes a more prominent focus of social work across the country.
If you would like to watch the entire session, it is available on our YouTube channel, and be on the lookout for our next Lunch & Learn session coming soon.