Coffee, Community and Culture

When most of us pour a cup of coffee, we don’t think much about how the beverage in our mug got its start. But a lot has to happen behind the scenes to turn raw coffee beans into the roasted, ground and packaged product we find at our local supermarkets. “Research gives us a framework for thinking critically about communities, clients and interventions”

To counteract these difficulties, many farmers choose to organize into cooperatives – groups of small farms that pool resources and share costs to help level the playing field between these individuals and larger, corporate farming operations.

But these cooperatives are more than just economic arrangements. They form the backbone of social and political life for many people in Central America, a fact Vo observed first-hand while working in the region as a social worker prior to joining the Baylor faculty.

“Cooperatives are central to the story of well-being for people in these communities,” she says. “In many rural areas, there is limited government presence, so cooperatives often step in to fill the void of social services. The cooperatives help to fill a vacuum otherwise vulnerable to drug trafficking and undocumented migration.”

Because cooperatives play such an important role in engaging with the community, Vo says, it is important for scholars to understand their methods and strategies to determine why some efforts succeed while others fail.

Resilience, not deficiency Social work research often identifies problems that limit prosperity. While it’s important to understand a community’s needs, Vo says that focusing only on deficiencies can lead to implementing short-sighted solutions. There is more to be gained, she says, from learning what groups are doing to overcome problems on their own through political activism and community organization.

“What we’ve learned from these cooperatives has potential implications for people in similar situations in other locations around the world,” says Vo, who joined the Baylor faculty in 2013 after earning her Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley. “Approaching the research from a strengths perspective flips the script – these farmers could easily be portrayed as victims, but instead they’re agents of progressive social change.”

Professional preparation As a professional school, Baylor’s Garland School of Social Work is focused on preparing its students for their future careers. Most of the school’s graduates will enter private practice or work for government agencies or non-profit organizations. With relatively few students planning careers in academia, it might seem strange for social work faculty members to be actively involved in research. However, according to Vo, research skills are central to social work practice at all levels.

“Research gives us a framework for thinking critically about communities, clients and interventions,” she says. “It’s not just about knowing what works and what doesn’t, it’s about understanding why some things work better than others in particular situations.”

In addition to her work with cooperatives in Central America, Vo has other ongoing research projects that directly involve Baylor social work students. This summer, she and a group of students will travel to the Dominican Republic to carry out program evaluation research in collaboration with Buckner International. She says that exposing her students to research experiences so early in their academic career positions them to make a positive contribution to the field of social work after graduation, no matter where they choose to work.

“There is no ‘typical’ career path for a social work major,” she explains, “but one commonality is that our students are driven by a desire to help people and make a positive difference. Whether their eventual careers involve working directly with clients, participating in community organizations or carrying out political advocacy, we want to prepare our students to carry out ‘compassionate practice,’ meaning practice that is guided by an empirical understanding of what types of interventions might be appropriate or inappropriate in a given situation.”