This month, Lisa Kowalchuk spoke to us about her recent research project in St. James Town. Lisa is a sociology professor at the University of Guelph. This is what she had to say:
At the beginning of October, I launched a study entitled “Extracting lessons from coping with COVID-19 in St. James Town”, and I’m grateful to have been asked to provide a brief description of the study in this issue of the Newsletter. This is a small-scale, short-term, exploratory study funded by the University of Guelph, where I’m employed as a sociology professor. I recently chose to make St. James Town the major focus of my research for the next few years, after spending the previous twenty-five years looking at social life and political struggles in El Salvador – protest movements, land reform, healthcare system reform, and nurses’ working conditions. A main motivator for changing my focus to a community much closer to where I live (about a half-hour walk) is to be able to have frequent interactions with community members. In that way, the research is better able to make a positive difference in the quality of life for the community. St. James Town appeals to me because of its diversity, vibrancy, and fascinating history, all of which I have been learning more about over the past year.
I have been volunteering in a few capacities with The Corner for the past year or so, and have been very fortunate to enjoy their facilitation of the study, as well as that of the St. James Town Service Providers Network. The goal of the study on coping with COVID in St. James Town is to inform the best possible responses to needs in the community that have been amplified by the pandemic, thereby reducing the harms of the physical distancing measures in the months ahead, and being prepared to respond to similar crises in the future.
Toward that end, the study aims to identify and strengthen the “social capital” and knowledge held by residents of St. James Town, and by the personnel of agencies and organizations that serve them, to confront the present COVID-19 pandemic. “Social capital” refers to the relationships, interactions and connections between individuals, and between groups, that serve as an asset for fulfilling people’s needs and goals. These needs can range from social and emotional, such as friendship and sense of belonging, to the ability to act collectively toward shared aims, such as an election campaign team, or a tenants’ association, to material and income related goals such as finding employment.
One main question the study tries to answer is: what have been the impacts of the pandemic on people’s wellbeing, and how are these different for particular groups and situations, such as seniors, youth, people with disabilities, people who cannot work from home, newcomers to Canada, etc.? A second question is how do people seek and receive help, as well as providing help to others, what has been working well for people, and could anything more have been done – by governments, by community organizations, landlords, and by residents themselves -- to prepare for all the disruptions that the pandemic has caused?
The methodology of the project consists mainly of semi-structured interviews with a variety of people who live in, or serve and advocate for, the community. As part of this, a team of three resident research assistants are entrusted with interviewing fellow residents about their experiences in living with the pandemic. Data collection is set to wrap up in mid-December. One of the main outputs will be a written report for the organizations that serve and work in the neighbourhood, geared to informing their work. There will also be a special 1-hour episode of the podcast that I helped launch, produce, and host in May of this year called St. James Town Storeys. This will be aimed at providing residents of the community with informational tools for coping with the pandemic’s challenges and thriving despite them. Both the written and audio presentations of the findings should be ready in early 2021.