Kyle in Taos and Honolulu

Kyle is a junior President’s Scholar majoring in biology, individual studies in applied scientific computing and human rights in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. Kyle is participating in Engaged Learning and also was awarded a Maguire and Irby Family Foundation Public Service Internship from the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at SMU. During summer 2013, he interned at two nonprofit organizations: Taos County Economic Development Center, where he examined how economic development corporations can help nonprofits empower communities, and Ke Ola Mamo Native Hawaiian Health Services, where he examined how one local nonprofit is able to work directly with the community.

Second thoughts

Just two days after forming my idea for research on TCEDC’s impact in the community, almost everything seems to be in line: TCEDC’s directors have said my research is an important need; Dr. Nibbs, my cultural anthropology professor and mentor for the internship, has helped me to outline a plan and create interview questions; and I already have started some preliminary interviews with several of TCEDC’s clients.

Yet I already have some hesitations about the whole thing.  As good as the idea may sound, it ultimately came from me, an outsider, rather than the community.  The distinction is significant: not only does my outsider’s perspective compromise my ability to do research, but it also establishes an undesirable relationship that places me in control over the community, and even opens the possibility of harming the community.  The social sciences have recently started to take an introspective look at these relationships as well as the ways research has had unintended negative consequences on communities.  Even if my research sounds benign, if not beneficial, it runs into the very same problems described above.

In response to these concerns, the social science community has developed a process to more effectively involve the community in research, known as Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR).  This process holds promise but takes a lot of time and planning, making it virtually impossible for me to accomplish in my short time here.  I’m uncertain about how to address the issue.  Although I won’t let it stop my research, I will be doing so with much deeper contemplation and sensitivity.

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New direction

In Taos, poverty rates among high school graduates is almost 10 percent above the state average.  For TCEDC, that means that most clients simply cannot afford to pay at cost for the services that TCEDC provides.  As a result, TCEDC heavily subsidizes its services, making it largely dependent on grant funding.  I soon recognized an opportunity to use my skills and experience to maximize my impact at TCEDC by addressing its need for grant funding.

Grant funding is something I have dealt with since high school, having written grant proposals for a struggling nonprofit organization in Hawaii (I ultimately helped them to win two grants!) and organizing grant-writing services for other nonprofits in need.  Although TCEDC needs no help with grant writing, thanks to the two expert grant writers who run the organization, a review of their grant proposals last week revealed a deficiency that I realized I was prepared to address.  In their grant proposals, they repeatedly mentioned their impact on the community but had little way to demonstrate it.  By putting on my “academic researcher” hat, I am in a position to help.

By conducting an academic research study, I can easily document TCEDC’s impact on the community.  In conversations around town, I already know that most people familiar with TCEDC strongly support it.  By conducting formal interviews, I can collect invaluable qualitative data on TCEDC’s impact – personal accounts and anecdotes that inform grant funders – and provide it as a tool for TCEDC’s future grant proposals.  Better yet, if I can work with a professor to get this research published, TCEDC can cite the publication as a credible source in any of their future grant proposals.  This is an idea that maximizes my skills and experience as a social scientist (I was doing anthropology research here in Taos just last year!) and achieves my goal of learning about the role of a nonprofit in building a community.  I’m excited to turn my internship in this direction, and expect it to go well!

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I have never seen a dead cow before

I have never seen a dead cow before. Or rather, I have never seen a cow carcass before. But in the last few days, I have seen more carcasses than I can count, throughout the process from slaughter to butchering to packaging for sale. The macabre process is far more than just an intriguing spectacle … or a vegan’s nightmare. In reality, this process makes up the livelihood of dozens of ranchers in the region, who form a major chunk of the local economy and in turn a major part of Taos’ culture. Taken in a broader context, these animals form a way of life; one could call them the heartbeat of the town.

My encounter with this issue came about because of the Taos County Economic Development Center’s essential role in the process. TCEDC offers a mobile slaughter unit called the Mobile Matanza (named after a popular New Mexico tradition), which offers FDA-approved and -inspected slaughter, butcher, and packaging services to farmers at subsidized rates. That FDA approval, required for any meat processing or sales, cannot be found anywhere else in Northern New Mexico. As one farmer explained, without the Mobile Matanza, he and all the other ranchers in Taos would be unable to legally sell their meat unless they took their animals all the way up to the nearest slaughterhouse – in Colorado!

It quickly became clear to me that the Mobile Matanza was TCEDC’s innovative solution to a major need in their community. By enabling ranchers, the Mobile Matanza supports a ranching economy while advancing TCEDC’s goals of maintaining Taos’ land-based culture even in the face of modern requirements. Even in its very name, the Mobile Matanza endorses the traditional culture of this area. It’s a neat idea that breeds many new ideas in my mind for my own community!

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