The disparities between well-intentioned plans for a women-only wellness center on the City of Syracuse’s North Side area and the challenges of providing wellness programming given neighborhood resources and conditions is the topic of the 2022-2023 Lender Center for Social Justice Symposium.
“Access to Wellness for Women in a Diverse Socio-Economic Neighborhood” takes place Wednesday, March 29. The in-person panel discussion will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. in the Schine Student Center, Room 304 ABC. It will also be available for viewing on Zoom. Registration is requested.
The symposium is an annual event and an outgrowth of the Lender Center faculty and student fellowship program that supports two-year research projects exploring existing social issues and developing problem-solving approaches to community concerns.
Seyeon Lee is the 2022-2023 Lender Center for Social Justice Faculty Fellow. Lee is an associate professor of environmental and interior design and George Miller Quasi Endowed Professor in the School of Design in the College of Visual and Performing Arts.
The 2022-2023 student fellows are Aaishanni Agny G’23 (clinical mental health counseling); Roselynne Hodges ’24 (environmental and interior design); Iona Volynets ’24 (international relations/history); and Ana Aponte González ’24 (communications and rhetorical studies/women’s and gender studies).
Also part of the panel discussion will be community partners who were involved with helping provide wellness programming: Johnathan Logan, director of NorthUP; Amalia Swan, chief community impact officer of Food Bank of Central New York; Mike Van Epps, co-leader of the Vineyard North Side Food Pantry; Maxine Burgin, North Side site pastor of Vineyard Church; and Munira Aziz and Emilia Jerez, residents of the Syracuse community.
Complex Issues Involved
Initially, the research project was meant to assess whether a well-equipped fitness center, which was designed to accommodate a broad range of wellness supports and programs for women in Syracuse’s North Side community, was meeting planned objectives. The researchers discovered that while the idea of a neighborhood wellness center had merit, the neighborhood environment and the women’s personal situations presented obstacles to achieving the intended goals. Cultural, child care, transportation and “comfort zone” barriers—along with social distancing during COVID-19—resulted in the facility being virtually unused by those it was created to serve.
Among their research team’s discoveries was that the diverse mix of nationalities, household sizes and languages among North Side neighborhood residents presented challenges for program delivery. Cultural differences and unequal distribution of environmental resources, such as transportation and childcare availability, were additional barriers to program participation, according to Lee. Other factors were concerns about safety and the availability of culturally appropriate fresh produce in the community.
“We studied the social determinants of health and their conditions in the community, not just the issues of the building and its use, and we saw how complex it was to bring the community together to improve wellness resources,” Lee says.
Tailored to Needs
Research team members separately and together examined the issues and concerns they found. They also inquired about the cultural perception of self-worth as a value that contributed to willingness to participate in wellness activities.
As the project progressed, the fellows tweaked nearly all program aspects to devise a work-around. They arranged pick-up and transportation. Mothers could bring all their children along because child care services, child equipment and snacks were provided. A less imposing, more personalized space was developed. Health counselors and fitness coaches offered nutrition and mindfulness information in a more intimate, small-group setting and provided instruction on exercises that could be done at home.
Those accommodations allowed nine women to participate in six weeks of wellness programming. By the end of that time, Lee says the research team noticed participants’ mindsets starting to change. Participants became more comfortable and recognized that spending time on personal wellness care was acceptable and positive.
As a student, Hodges loved being able to fully immerse herself in the community. “Meeting people from all over the world opened my eyes to a variety of cultures and experiences,” she says. “Working with real people and real problems was a challenge because one cannot predict how human subjects are going to behave. But the outcome made me feel like I was making a positive difference.”
Aponte says the project helped her discover a passion for research. “Through this community participatory approach, I was able to bridge what I’ve learned from connecting with the community at La Casita Cultural Center with research efforts that seek to make visible the problems in underrepresented communities,” she says.
Agny says the project was fulfilling because the research was intentionally applicable, and scalable, and created larger dialogue about access to wellness. “Often, research remains in academic circles and does not reach the intended audiences. Working with various organizations helped me understand the scope of research in social work and mental health outreach,” she says.
Volynets says she has loved being able to engage with the North Side community through her own and her peers’ projects. “Getting to interact with people from Syracuse outside of the University is a very rewarding and eye-opening experience. I’ve learned so much about public service, research and community engagement from this project.”
Lee says she also learned how complex social elements can affect spatial design and use. “It turned out that a lot of social issues, political issues and social justice and equity issues were all addressed in this project. Community-based projects such as ours are difficult to deliver because they are so complex and are related to particular socioeconomic demographics,” Lee says. “The research helped us really understand what is happening in our backyard.”