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Faculty in Focus - Sherrie Steiner

Academic interests are often shaped by personal experiences, and Assistant Professor Sherrie Steiner (sociology) utilizes experiences from her past to enrich student learning and help communities through service-learning projects. Steiner specializes in research on social movements, environmental sociology, sociology of religion, and social theory. She is currently conducting research on the F8/F7 and F20—independent interfaith shadow summits of religious leaders held at the same time as meetings of the Group of 8 (G8), G7, and G20 political summits—which she will turn into a book (for more on this research, see her Faculty in Focus video). She has also been engaged in teaching service-learning courses for the last three semesters.

From 1977 to 1990, a series of experiences led Steiner to drastically alter her career trajectory. While studying for a degree in biology at Westmont College, Steiner joined a student group who worked with orphanages in Mexico. After graduation, she decided to continue working with this group rather than attending medical school. Steiner also had moved to an impoverished, gang-heavy urban area in Pasadena, California. Learning to navigate these life experiences inadvertently led Steiner to study sociology: “What I learned from these experiences is you can be very sincere; you can give it your all; and sometimes things just fall apart. When I was exposed to sociology, I was most interested in how it gave you the tools to see social forces that our American individualism obscures. We’re trained to see individuals acting by themselves, and then if they want to make a difference in the world, well it’s simple: You just have to try harder or be more sincere. Well I learned that that’s not necessarily the case.”

And Steiner learned these lessons the hard way while working with communities in Mexico, most poignantly at an orphanage in San Antonio de las Minas. Steiner and other community members helped build the orphanage from “nothing” to a facility with ten-acre working farm, a full kitchen, and three dorms. It was a very successful operation. So when the orphanage operator asked for a well, Steiner and the orphanages' other supporters raised the money and put in a well. And this well destroyed the orphanage.

Steiner was devastated, “We were shocked. How could that happen? Well, we didn’t pay attention to the community. We didn’t pay attention to stratification. And the unintended consequences of this action was that wealthier people wanted that well. The community was experiencing a drought, and we didn’t pay attention to how a different countries has different laws about water. The moneyed people went to the government, and the government held the domain rights on water. In order for the community to gain access to that well, they shut the entire orphanage down. All the children who were being helped, all the good work that was being done, was entirely dismantled.”

The destruction of the orphanage was key to Steiner’s eventual interest in sociology. She believes that if she and her group had training in sociology at the time, there may have been a different outcome: “What I know now from sociology is that if we’d paid attention to the community, dialogued with the various important people who have various vested interests in the neighborhood, I can’t say that the orphanage would still be there, but I think that there’d be a much better chance that a community well could have been installed where everyone had access to it, including the orphanage.”

Now Steiner is using what she has learned to help other communities through service-learning projects. For the last three semesters, Steiner has been engaged with the Blackford County Concerned Citizens group (BCCC), a grass-roots citizens group formed to address community health concerns. Blackford County has disproportionately high rates of several forms of cancer and Lou Gehrig’s disease. The group was formed to investigate whether or not industrial pollutants may be influencing public health. Since the county is small and not especially wealthy, BCCC has been utilizing Steiner’s students and IPFW's Environmental Resources Center (ERC) to help educate residents about the industrial legacy and possible contaminants. Steiner’s students created GIS maps in collaboration with the ERC, and with the assistance of Studio M, they made videos of the soil testing project, the well testing project, and a video documenting the collaboration.

With that information, the group was able to selectively choose and test areas of potentially toxic soil (i.e. areas that were once home to industrial sites with potential pollutants). BCCC was able to reduce citizen anxiety when most of the water/soil samples came back clean. One sample from a local school yard showed high levels of arsenic contamination, but in summer 2015, BCCC identified the source of the contaminants and cleaned up the area.

This service learning collaboration also involves improving BCCC’s social media presence by showing their members how to use it as a form of activism. Originally, the group had a website, multiple mailing lists, and a light social media presence. The students from Steiner’s class merged the email lists to one equipped with Google analytics to collect data on the emails' effectiveness; they linked the BCCC's social media sites to their website; and they conducted a Photo Essay Project to engage local residents to improve their community.

The service-learning project was beneficial to BCCC, but it was also instrumental in helping the students conceptualize principles of sociology. According to Steiner, “This project brings to life what they study in the course reading materials in a memorable way. Several of my students have commented that this experience was unlike anything they had ever been a part of before and it was worthwhile and transformative.” Steiner plans to continue the collaboration with the BCCC in her fall 2016 Sociology S230, Society and the Individual class.

To learn more about Steiner’s research, watch her Faculty in Focus video. For more on Steiner or her service-learning projects, contact the Department of Sociology.