Dr. Lara Foley wasn't tasked with gathering information for Mayor Kathy Taylor, but as a professor of women and gender studies for the Sociology Department of the University of Tulsa, and as a member of the Mayor's 15-member Commission on the Status of Women, she saw it as a perfect opportunity to benefit both the public and her students in a single effort.
She recently kicked-off the "Status of Women in Tulsa" project which, as the name of the project indicates, is an effort to assess the needs of women in the city.
The research consists of an ongoing series of focus groups facilitated by her students, the results of which she will present to the commission this spring for consideration on how to improve the city's various services and institutions.
Foley said she doesn't have any proposals in mind for public policy, and doesn't know what ideas might arise from the research, but said she sees the study primarily "as an education opportunity for students that might have benefits for public policy."
She said her service so far on the commission gave her the idea.
"I started to think about the purpose of the committee and started to think about what we know about the status of women," Foley said.
"We have numbers related to healthcare issues for women and numbers for women in prison--we tend to lead the nation for the number of women incarcerated, but I wanted students to get involved in community research projects, to add women's voices to the numbers others have done a good job of researching," she explained.
Foley said she plans to have five focus groups conducted before the data is collected and presented to the Mayor's commission, each with a different and varied group of women.
"We're asking people about their daily lives in Tulsa," she explained as the focus of discussion.
Foley said the intent is to gather information about different groups of women's experiences with the various aspects of living in Tulsa, such as transportation, health care access, employment, education, entertainment and social services.
She said the discussions should focus both on both the successes and shortcomings of city services.
"What's the best thing about living in Tulsa?" is one of the questions for sparking discussion, she said.
Two focus groups have been conducted so far.
The first was a group of professional women. The second was a group of lesbian, bisexual and transgender women, which was hosted by Oklahomans for Equality.
The remaining three have not yet been organized, but Foley said she's trying to get together a group of Hispanic professionals for the third focus group.
For the fourth, she said she's considering a group of Spanish-speaking Hispanic women who have difficulty with English.
Foley said a possible fifth focus group will be a group of disabled women.
But, she emphasized that the purpose of forming the different groups is not to reduce the women to the labels of "disabled" or "Hispanic" or others.
"It has less to do with breaking people into categories, and more to do with the ease of getting people together," Foley explained.
For instance, some of the women who made up the "Professionals" focus group might also make up the "Disabled" group.
"This provides a really great educational opportunity for students," Foley said.
She said the attraction, from an educational standpoint, is to get her students out into the real world through direct community research, instead of being shut away in the library, studying other people's research.
"I want them to learn how to find out what the community needs are and how they're defined," she said.
Along with the research skills developed, she said it's also a good resume builder for students.
But, the benefits for her students are only half of the reward. The public might also benefit as well.
The project also enables the City of Tulsa to benefit TU students with the educational experience while they serve as an information-gathering agency, of sorts, for the city, but without any taxpayer expense.
"The students are getting course credit for their work, and there are no expenses, unless you count the water we buy for the women in the focus groups," said Foley.
The professor said she plans on the focus groups continuing after the data is presented to the Mayor's commission this spring, with five or six focus groups each semester.
"Eventually I hope this expands, if there's interest, into other universities," Foley said.
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