For Lyndi Hewitt, sociology—and education—happens in the community. Hewitt, UNC Asheville’s Sara and Joseph Breman Professor of Social Relations (2017-19), associate professor of sociology, and director of women, gender and sexuality studies, was given the 2019 Community Connector Award recognizing her ongoing outreach efforts and use of academic engagement to address community problems—work that is, for Hewitt, a dream job.
“This is what I’ve always wanted to do,” Hewitt said. “This is the type of meaningful work I always hoped could be possible in an academic setting.”
Hewitt has been using her expertise in applied sociology to collaborate with various organizations in the Asheville community for years. Along with Kathleen Lawlor, assistant professor of economics, Hewitt worked closely with Women for Women, a women’s giving circle through the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, which wanted to evolve their practice of giving numerous smaller grants into providing larger, multi-year, collaborative high-impact grants—a practice that research suggests is a more effective way to support social change, Hewitt said.
“That was right up my alley,” said Hewitt, who has a long history of working in feminist philanthropy. “It has been such a gift to work with the dedicated, talented Women for Women leaders.”
Hewitt has also provided support for Women for Women’s grantees, a partnership between Helpmate, Our VOICE, Pisgah Legal Services and Mountain Child Advocacy Center, which focuses on creating systemic change and prevention of gender-based violence and child maltreatment.
It’s the work of contributing to systemic responses to real-world problems that Hewitt has found is deeply important to her students, and she’s made her classroom the perfect springboard for them to get involved in that work.
In her recent applied social research workshop, students knew they’d be going beyond standard classwork. Students helped Pisgah Legal Services conduct a needs assessment, assisted the Asheville City Schools Foundation in gathering and analyzing data concerning the racial opportunity gap, and helped STEAM Studio’s Community Tool School evaluate their programming, which focuses on empowering young women and bringing them into spaces that traditionally haven’t been welcoming.
“So many of our social science students have that interest because they want to intervene in inequalities,” Hewitt said. “They’re really invested in social change; they want to make the world better. They want to have an impact.”
“Doing this work well requires students not only to hone their research design and data analysis skills, but also to commit to ethical collaborations that center the needs and respect the experiences of community partners. We have to practice careful listening and reflecting.”
It’s projects like these that allow students to see how they can apply the critical thinking, data analysis, and problem solving they’ve learned through their liberal arts studies to create that social change, Hewitt said. It’s a skill that all students will be able to develop and sharpen through a new interdisciplinary certificate in applied social science research, which students will be able to participate in for the first time in the coming fall semester of 2019.
“I’m fortunate to work at an institution that explicitly values community engaged research and teaching. That is not the norm,” Hewitt said. “The faculty here and the values that we hold as an institution are not representative of academia as a whole.”
“I’m grateful that I’ve landed in a place where the work that feeds my soul is also aligned with the values and mission of the university,” Hewitt said.