February 23, 2024
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Institute for Justice and Well-Being brings researchers, community together to create change

Institute advances goals through educational opportunities, applied research and partnerships with community organizations

As social justice issues around the world become more complex, it’s clear that no single person has all the answers.

“The social problems we’re looking to understand and solve today are better addressed by bringing together people with different backgrounds and different knowledge,” says Laura Bronstein, dean of Binghamton University’s College of Community and Public Affairs (CCPA) and director of the Institute for Justice and Well-Being.

Founded in 2009, the institute leverages collaboration across the University to advance global health, progressive education and well-being for marginalized populations through educational opportunities, applied research and partnerships with community organizations.

Its research affiliates span a wide range of disciplines, including counseling, education, engineering, human development, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, psychology and social work. Bronstein, a researcher in the field of interdisciplinary collaboration, said Binghamton has an environment that encourages this kind of work.

“The University is large enough to house people with a lot of different interests and expertise, but it’s also small enough for the researchers here to really get to know one another,” she said.

As the institute continues to grow in size, so do its offerings. The institute provided $20,000 in seed grant funding to research affiliates in 2022 and is increasing that amount to $30,000 this year. The institute has increased its number of professional development programs as well, resulting in larger attendance.

“Our speakers are from all over the United States and the world, and have noted that the events put on by the institute have resulted in some of the largest turnouts they’ve seen for their work,” said Debbie Collett-O’Brien, a project staff associate.

Recent programs have covered areas such as antiracism in organizations, trauma-informed and healing-center practices, mental health and the Black community, and equitable and inclusive approaches to social emotional learning. Collett-O’Brien hopes the wide range of topics will encourage more to get connected with the institute.

“Our invite list has grown from a network of people here at the University to a network that extends well beyond Binghamton. And it keeps growing!”

Students get applied research opportunities

With applied research being a top priority for the institute, the recent development of a research lab has expanded involvement opportunities for faculty and students.

“We were getting frequent requests from students across the University interested in social justice research that used actual community-based methods,” said Kim Brimhall, assistant professor of social work and assistant director of the institute. “As a result, we started this informal lab that provided a structure for students who want to be engaged in this kind of work.”

Run by Brimhall, Associate Professor Amber Simpson and Kelley Cook, a doctoral candidate in CCPA’s Community Research in Action program, the group is in the process of formalizing the lab into a credit-bearing program. Brimhall said it is open to any students interested in getting hands-on experience working with communities, social justice issues and real-world data.

“We wanted to keep the focus of the lab pretty broad in order to open it up to any students interested in this important work,” she said.

With several projects underway, lab participants learn how to break down the step-by-step process of conducting research. Some of these projects result in conference presentations and published papers, including a recent article exploring how workgroup inclusion is key for helping human service employees of color improve job satisfaction and commitment.

Cook says the lab fosters connections, with the doctoral students mentoring other undergraduate and master’s students.

“It’s rewarding when students say, ‘I didn’t know that I could do research like this, and I actually love this.’ And now they are considering new career ideas because they now know this option exists,” she said.

Brimhall noted that many students currently involved with the lab are first-generation.

“It’s exciting to see students get a better understanding of how research is conducted. It really makes them feel like their work is making an impact,” she said.

Bronstein believes this is emblematic of the mission of the Institute for Justice and Well-Being.

“The institute is not only social justice oriented in the content we research. The social justice process permeates how we work,” she said. “It’s giving people a chance that they might not otherwise have.”

Partnerships drive Community Schools work

In order to conduct applied research and help drive real-world outcomes, the Institute for Justice and Well-Being has partnered with several community organizations and businesses. Some of these partnerships have been facilitated through Binghamton University Community Schools (BUCS).

“Community schools embody the same values and goals as the institute, especially in promoting social justice and well-being,” said Bronstein.

Through collaboration with school districts and community agencies, BUCS works to create an equitable school environment by encouraging active family engagement, extended learning opportunities, community engagement, integrated student support and collaborative leadership.

“We want families to be involved with their schools and want to break down the barriers that may be preventing this. We bring families to the table so they can feel heard, and we learn from them,” says Luann Kida, executive director of BUCS.

Kida said these barriers can range from being as cumbersome as overly complicated or redundant forms, to as complex as healthcare access. A partnership between BUCS and Excellus BlueCross BlueShield looks to discover and remediate some of these healthcare barriers.

By analyzing data provided by Excellus, BUCS is able to identify areas in the surrounding community where children aren’t meeting healthcare targets, such as regular pediatrician or dental visits, or keeping up with immunization schedules.

“This can affect everything from long-term health to education. If you’re not identifying issues early on, the child may get sick and then spend significant time out of school,” said Kida. “In order to make improvements, we need to learn why this is happening in the first place.”

Its partnership with local school districts allows BUCS to get the story behind the data by speaking directly with families.

“What is causing this? Is it related to health insurance? Is there a lack of transportation to bring children to these appointments? These are all important things to know if we’re going to solve the ‘why’ behind the data,” said Kida.

Gathering this invaluable information allows BUCS, Excellus, local school districts and families to work together to develop solutions.

“As a locally based, not-for-profit health insurer, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield’s mission ‘to help the people in our communities live healthier and more secure lives through access to high-quality, affordable healthcare’ can’t be achieved unless we have health resources and programs in the community like BUCS,” said Jessica Renner, senior vice-president, enterprise strategy, and chief risk officer and regional president of Excellus. “This work is a journey, and we are dedicated to the on-going focus and long-term commitment that is necessary to identify high-risk community members and successfully connect them to health solutions.”

“Everyone is going to win from this, especially local families and children. This kind of partnership shows why we need to come together to do this work. No one party can do it on their own,” said Kida.

“And that is what the Institute for Justice and Well-Being is all about. We are promoting access and equity by combining minds and power to better serve our community.”

Binghamton University is dedicated to the advancement of social justice for all individuals and populations. To that end, a number of institutes and centers have been established to promote research, ideas, communication and critical discourse in areas including human rights; equality for women and girls; and global health, progressive education and well-being for marginalized populations.

Each of these institutes and centers has a specific focus, yet they all exist to raise awareness of issues of historical, systemic injustices, and to explore ways to rise above these injustices to the benefit of the world’s underrepresented.