A university coalition is working to create a more diverse research community, including opportunities for undergraduate students.
Stop HIV/AIDS Women’s Network’s research is centered around women who use drugs, have been incarcerated or are at risk for HIV/AIDS. The goal is to improve the community care for these women while also dissolving the stigmas that surround them.
The students interviewed say they hope they can inspire people to view these women from a less judgmental and more compassionate perspective.
SHAWN is a project made up of social work students interested in conducting research to improve criminal legal policy, and the community of the women affected.
Sabrine Yaser, sophomore, social work major, is one of the research assistants on the project. She said that she soon will become the lead on the digital story aspect of SHAWN.
“I help with transcribing audio from interviews, write blogs for our website and more,” Yaser says.
Yaser says that it is important to have a project like SHAWN provided on campus because it brings up topics people are not used to having.
“[The SHAWN Project] makes us more comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Yaser says.
Yaser says that SHAWN provides a safe community for anyone who may be affected by any problems regardless of race, gender, religion or sexuality.
Emily Ziemba is a graduate assistant who has been a researcher for SHAWN project since its creation in 2022.
“Research and social work was not something that people really talked about as a job opportunity,” Ziemba says.
Before discovering SHAWN, she didn’t know of many opportunities for women to get involved in social work research. Joining the team showed her that there is a high demand for women to get involved. She says she became a part of the project to gain knowledge and experience for her future as a social worker, and the ability to make a difference.
“This project is working with women who are entangled in a criminal legal system,” says Samanta Morrison, senior, social work. “And I’m very passionate about that population because it has been overlooked.”
Morrison started working as a researcher for SHAWN before the start of the Fall 2023 semester. When he found the SHAWN Project, he realized he didn’t have to wait until after graduation to get involved with the group of people he feels so passionate about.
Mellody Massaquoi, senior, social work major, says that she joined the SHAWN project because of her interest in anything related to community-based work.
Being a social work major, she wanted to have a job that enhanced both her personal interests and her career field.
During the conducting of the shower study, Massaquoi says she “learned a lot on an emotional level hearing people talk about how important it was to have access to clean water and the ability to shower after work.”
In addition to students, the SHAWN Project includes faculty from the Social Work Department, including Prof. Amy Smoyer. She is the principal investigator of SHAWN and is responsible for creating the project.
“This project is the culmination of a lot of different things that I’ve been involved with in my career as a social worker,” Smoyer says.
She previously worked at the Yale School of Public Health studying the impact of the criminal legal system on HIV risk behavior. At Southern, she continues her studies and intends to open opportunities for a more diverse research community.
The inspiration for SHAWN came after the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 which resulted in women not being incarcerated for non-violent offenses to limit overcrowding at York Correctional Institute in East Lyme. The state’s only women’s prison saw its population drop by nearly half that year. When lockdowns and mask mandates ended, so did this practice which meant the population at York quickly returned to its average of 800–1,000 women incarcerated. SHAWN sees this anomaly as an opportunity to observe the effects of incarceration on these women and whether it increased their risk of getting HIV/AIDS.
“As social scientists we are curious about that year. What happened when we didn’t incarcerate these women? Did they continue to commit crimes, or did they move their lives in a positive direction?” Smoyer says.
The team is conducting interviews and analyzing qualitative data to draw conclusions on this unusual period. They received a three-year grant from the National Institutes of Health, and will be finalizing research in 2024–25.
Alongside this research are community-based studies which involve going out and interacting with the community. In the spring semester of 2023, SHAWN surveyed students and their relationship to the criminal legal system.
Ziemba says, “195 students responded to the survey, we found that 57% had some sort of impact from criminal legal systems.”
SHAWN members want deeper conversations about the impact of incarceration and to show the individuals affected that they are not alone. During this fall, the team visited public showers in New Haven to interview the women who used them. The intention was to evaluate the facilities’ effectiveness and gain a better understanding of these women’s life experiences.
The project is in honor of social activist and researcher Shawn Lang. Shawn spent all her adult life helping the LGBTQ community and individuals with HIV/AIDS through advocation of policy change and community care. Lang’s passion for the topic was born as a student at Lowell State University in the ’80s when the HIV/AIDS epidemic started.
Yaser encourages students to visit the Lang House and express themselves in a safe environment.
“Even though we have helped many students, we are still branching out to help other issues in our community,” Yaser says.
By Peter Schmitz