Two Fordham professors are writing a book about immigrant families in East Harlem who are connected to one of New York’s oldest community organizations, thanks to a $15,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation’s Religion and Theology Program and initial funding from Fordham’s Center for Community Engaged Learning.
“All of the things that we teach and talk about at Fordham—the city as our campus, research with justice and solidarity, attention to those on the margins—those are all at the center of this project,” said Brenna Moore, Ph.D., project co-leader and Fordham theology professor.
The organization, LSA Family Health Service, was founded by the Little Sisters of the Assumption in 1958. It’s a community-based organization that provides free services to disadvantaged families in East Harlem, with the goal of strengthening and empowering them to uplift the entire community. Last year, LSA enlisted two Fordham professors—Moore, a theology professor who serves on LSA’s board of directors, and Carey Kasten, Ph.D., an associate professor of Spanish—to help them tell their story. The resulting research project, “Mutuality in El Barrio: Stories of LSA Family Health Services in East Harlem,” will be the first academic study of LSA’s 63-year history and its long-term impact in the community, said Moore.
In February 2020, Moore and Kasten launched their project, thanks to funding from CCEL’s Faculty-Led Initiatives program, which supports interdisciplinary projects that serve the local community and advance social justice.
“We thought it was a great fit for CCEL and Fordham,” said Julie Gafney, Ph.D., executive director of CCEL. “This entire project, from conception to implementation, is about practicing mutuality.”
Mutuality is the guiding spiritual principle of LSA, which was originally founded by Catholic nuns, said Moore.
“They are now run by a more secular staff, but they’re still grounded in this principle of mutuality that distinguishes them from other organizations. They have a two-way relationship where both parties cultivate their strengths and learn from each other,” said Moore.
In spring 2020, Moore and Kasten hired seven Spanish-speaking student researchers from Fordham—three undergraduates and four students from the Graduate School of Social Service—to help them interview immigrant families who have used LSA’s services. In fall 2020, the team interviewed 19 mothers in their native language about what brought them to the U.S. and how the skills they learned through LSA have empowered them and their families.
The women’s stories were emotional and poignant, said Moore.
“There were several people in one household who had COVID, along with a little sister who had leukemia. There was so much trauma and struggle in these interviews. But it was also remarkable to hear about the resilience and the creativity these women possessed, as well as their desire to give back to their community through volunteering and helping their neighbors,” said Moore.
The hour-and-a-half long conversations were emotional for the interviewers, too, said Kasten.
“Those women are trusting you with so much at that moment—their story of coming to the U.S., with both trauma and reflection,” said Kasten, a fluent Spanish speaker who spearheaded the interview process. “The students were also moved by the interviews and drawn into the project because many of them are members of Spanish-speaking households whose parents have stories similar to the women that they interviewed.”
This past spring, Moore and Kasten’s team transcribed their interviews and researched LSA’s history, spirituality, and ministry. In November, they were awarded the $15,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation’s Religion and Theology Program to take their project to the finish line. From now until January 2023, the team will complete their book, present their research at a conference, and host a public event where all project participants can celebrate their work. Their project is now under advance book contract with Fordham Press’s Empire State Editions.
“It means everything for us to have our stories told,” said Trish Gough, director of volunteer services at LSA. “We’ve lived within this community for 63 years. Our history is so rich, and capturing it in a book filled with research means so much to us and our community.”