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Senior CbR Faculty Fellow: Dr. Maria Ferrera

Partnering with Immigrant Communities

“I’ve learned how research can harm communities of color and indigenous people, because it often doesn’t involve folks from the community,” says Dr. Maria Ferrera, Associate Professor of Social Work at DePaul.  “Let’s try to make research benefit communities.”

Dr. Ferrera became DePaul's first Senior Community-based Research Faculty Fellow in 2017 following her first fellowship in 2013-14.

Maria Ferrera

While pursuing her doctorate at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Work, Ferrera  focused on her own community of second generation Filipino Americans. “I grew up in the western suburbs of Chicago as a child of immigrants,” she says. “I had heard about the struggles of our community, and we tend to sweep things under the rug. With my social work, child welfare and mental health experience with immigrant families, I really wanted to crack open what we don’t like to talk about.”

Ferrera served for over 20 years as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the areas of child welfare and medical social work. During her first faculty fellowship, Ferrera worked with Centro Sin Fronteros in Chicago which took the lead in initiating the Youth Health Service Corps (YHSC) in two high schools and helping Ferrera reach youth. The group’s goal was to train high school-aged students from Pilsen and other communities to provide education and screenings to thousands of immigrants. The effort was a response to the challenges faced by undocumented and new immigrants who don’t qualify for health care. By working closely with community-based organizations, Ferrera explored how the program increased public health awareness within communities and encouraged students to pursue careers in healthcare.  

Miriam Barrera, health coordinator for YHSC at Centro Sin Fronteras, played a key role in helping the project access immigrant youth.  Originally from Mexico, Berrera played basketball in high school, college and for two years as a professional before she says she decided to “serve the community and help others just like me.” Working with Ferrera, Berrera notes “students had a responsibility to bring ten family members to the school” where they could learn about health issues. The project, was not only about health education – it was about empowering youth to be leaders. “Maria and the people from DePaul built relationships and the trust of leaders in the community,” she says.

For Ferrera, the qualitative research helped counter stereotypes that can demonize this population. That view is shared by DePaul student Sarah Schlemon, a research assistant for Ferrera’s second fellowship, who is pursuing a master’s in social work.  “I was recently transcribing an interview of a young woman the other day, a child of undocumented parents. It’s unreal how strong and aware and compassionate and responsible these young men and women are,” says Schlemon. “Being able to hear these stories again is a blessing.”

Schlemon adds that Ferrera has “an enormous amount of compassion and is probably the most patient person I’ve ever met. She cares deeply about her work, and brings elements of her research to class.”

Bernadette Muloski, who graduated from DePaul with a master’s in social work in 2015, was a research assistant for Ferrera and also engaged in service learning activities tied to the project through an elective class in positive minority development. “Students in the class had an opportunity to learn about youth empowerment and development,” she says.  “Talking to youth in the community helped us learn ‘How does this actually play out? How are these youth helping out their community?’”

Ferrera came across data that showed there was a high suicide rate among second generation Filipino Americans. “I was also learning about the history of colonization in the community, and that got me going on historical oppression and the impact of ethnic identity.” Filipinos, she notes, have survived 300 years of colonization.  Ferrera says that her findings related in a broader sense to many minority communities.

One prominent theme of her first fellowship, she says, was how mental health issues impacted this population – including depression and suicides. That experience helped lead to her second faculty fellowship project, during which she worked to help develop a coalition for immigrant mental health.  Now, more than 300 people are involved in the coalition, including researchers, practitioners and members of the academic community. The group met for the first time two days after the 2016 presidential election. “It was clear to us,” she says, “that young folks were distressed and isolated. That confirmed what we had learned from the first project.”

Ferrera’s community-based research has helped her understand and affirm the potential for communities to positively impact their own health issues. In an article in the Journal of Community Practice, she wrote: “Immigrant and minority youth have been able to articulate how they identify with the struggle of undocumented and new immigrants, and how this motivates them to engage in civic action.”

She reflects on the positive impact community-based research can have – as a tool for learning as well as a way to benefit communities “This process has kept me in check as a researcher,” she says. “It has to be transparent  - and it has to engage community partners. There’s a growing understanding about how communities need to be involved on this level if we want social justice.”

For more information on the Community-based Research Faculty Fellowship