Meet the Scholars: Laurent Reyes


Laurent Reyes is a PhD student in social work at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. She is a part of Health Policy Research Scholars Cohort 2017.

Before we begin, tell us a little bit about yourself and what your research interests are.

I am a storyteller, an activist, a scholar, y una luchadora from La Habana, Cuba. My mother and I immigrated to the United States in the late ‘90s to a small town in New Jersey called West New York. As a first-generation college student, I earned my BA in women and gender studies and my BSc in social work from Rutgers. After graduating, I went to Mexico City to work on reproductive health research for two years before moving to San Francisco, where I worked on a range of community research projects. It was then that I decided to return to Rutgers in pursuit of a combined MSW/PhD in social work.

My research interests are focused on understanding the experiences of older adults in the United States, particularly as it concerns access to community services and the support of informal networks. Currently, I am studying the civic participation experiences of Latinx and African-American older adults throughout the life course in the context of immigration, chronic illness, and discrimination using oral history and photo-elicitation driven interviews.

What’s the story behind why you’re doing what you’re doing? 

I was raised by women: my mother, my aunts, my grandmothers, my great-grandmother, and my neighbors (most of whom were also mothers and grandmothers). They taught me what it means to live in community, to contribute, to care for and nourish each other, to celebrate together, and to laugh even in times of struggle. And there was always a struggle. I left this community at a young age, but the values and love they instilled in me are the seeds of my inspiration and commitment to the work that I do. My research aims to highlight the power of close-knit networks (community), particularly in the context of our lived and historical struggles—how individuals uplift each other every day and help each other thrive in the face of oppression. This is the community that raised me and the type of community I strive to foster and support through my research and activism.

Tell us about a project you are currently working on that you are excited about.

I am very excited about my dissertation project using photo-elicitation and oral history interviews to understand the experiences of Latinx and African-American older adults’ civic participation in New Jersey. I am drawing from an intersectional life course perspective to contextualize experiences of civic participation within culture, politics, and life transitions (e.g., immigration, chronic illness). Most research until now has focused solely on formal volunteerism and/or voting as the primary activities of civic participation. However, for most of U.S. history these activities were only accessible to white men, and continue to remain inaccessible for many Latinx and African-Americans. While decreasing barriers and promoting access are essential, what has not been considered is the ways in which these groups have been contributing to our communities and society. Formal volunteerism may provide an avenue to contribute to the cause of an organization or foundation, but sharing food with your neighbor and building community through block parties and watch groups (among other social and political activities) are also critical for the growth and well-being of our society. This research aims to make visible the civic activities that have been going unrecognized for generations, and provide a new conceptualization of civic participation that considers experiences beyond volunteering and voting.

For people unfamiliar with your research area, what is one piece of information you think is important for them to know? 

By 2030, about 20 million adults (or 28% of adults) in the United States age 65 and older are expected to be from an ethnoracial minority group, with Latinx and African-Americans being the largest nonwhite groups of older adults. Some scholars are calling this a “demographic revolution,” and there is increasing conversation on how our society will manage the socio-economic demands of this shift.  Formal volunteerism is being proposed as a “win-win” solution that benefits both society and the individual. However, this idea, which was first proposed 55 years ago in 1965 with the Older Americans Act, fails to consider several factors discussed in the literature.

By promoting only one form of civic participation, policy and research are contributing to a narrow paradigm of older adults’ civic participation while other experiences/contributions are going unrecognized (missed potential).

Well-intentioned researchers are calling for equal opportunity to decrease disparities in rates of formal volunteerism among older adults from ethnic minority backgrounds. However, without acknowledging and supporting the ways these groups are participating, this strategy is unintentionally forcing the dominant culture of civic participation onto a multicultural population, whose experiences and understanding of civic participation may be vastly different (forced assimilation).

This solution places a heavy burden on older adults from marginalized backgrounds who are already facing many hardships, by asking them to help meet the social needs of our society with no pay or at low wages.

Who is a researcher you admire and why?

Beyond any single individual, the research that I admire is the kind that challenges the traditional frameworks of knowledge production. Research that engages participants beyond the role of the subject and respects the expertise of the lived experience. Research that aims to directly benefit the groups and communities whose data is being extracted, rather than just improving the impact factor of a journal. Research that is as meaningful to the participants as to the researcher and that can serve as a tool to create positive changes that strengthen communities.

How has being an HPRS Scholar helped you during your time as a doctoral candidate?

I applied to HPRS because of my commitment to producing research that makes an impact in people’s lives. From the moment I met my cohort and the program leaders, it became clear that this community would support me in doing just that. The trainings, classes, and workshops continue to expand my understanding of how research can influence policy, programs, and communities. The ongoing peer support has been essential in helping me navigate the doctoral program and my professional relationships with faculty. In addition, the HPRS funding has allowed me to dedicate more time to research that I am passionate about and committed to. It has also allowed me to present at various conferences, which has expanded my professional network and mentorship. The coach that I was paired with as part of HPRS, Dr. Rocío Calvo, has motivated me to continue doing this work despite the barriers along the way. This partnership has evolved beyond HPRS, as she is now part of my dissertation committee and has become a dedicated and invaluable mentor. Overall, this network challenges and expands my knowledge and approach to research, and holds me accountable to pursuing my initial goal.

In the RWJF HPRS program, we have worked with you to help you think further about using your research to develop policy. If you could use your research to change any policy, what policy would it be? 

Beyond any single policy, my objective is to fundamentally change the way we view communities, particularly communities of color. So often, policy and programs arrive at solutions through a needs assessment, focusing on the poverty and deficit of our communities. Yet, our communities have not survived generations of oppression because of what we lack, but rather because of the amazing strength and spirit that we possess. Though addressing the needs of a community is essential, the way in which needs are addressed often does not respect or acknowledge the skills and wisdom inherent in the community. This leads to policy and programs that sometimes do more harm than good or are simply ineffective in meeting their objectives.

Instead of creating and imposing programs upon communities, why don’t we observe and listen to how communities are addressing their needs and finding solutions? Policies that build and elevate the work that is already happening can be more successful and impactful in producing sustainable change. As we say in social work, “meet the client where they are at” and provide the resources and support systems that they need to continue doing the good work they’re doing.

OK, here’s a fun question to wrap things up. If you were stranded on a desert island, what three items would you want to have with you?  

I would bring my journal, a hatchet for survival, and finally the book I’m reading now, Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown, which I cannot recommend enough and which, on a desert island, would hopefully keep me engaged and connected to the world around me. I’d like to end with a quote from this book.

“Most of our movements are reduced to advancing false solutions, things we can get corporate or government agreement on, which don’t actually get us where we need to be. It was and is devastatingly clear to me that until we have some sense of how to live our solutions locally, we won’t be successful at implementing a just governance system regionally, nationally, or globally.” (p. 52)

Thank you so much for your time! 

Laurent’s bio


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