Para que mi Mamá lo Lea: Reflections on Building a Residency Capstone Project

Circle with text in the center that reads It's all about building community.

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El Context

“Make sure your mama can read what you wrote.” 

These words, spoken by Dr. David Stovall, Professor of African American Studies; Criminology, Law & Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) during the 2018 White Privilege Conference had a profound impact on me. I repeated those words to myself constantly as I began to shape my capstone project for the third year of my residency. I wanted to be sure that the research I engaged in served a purpose not only in my daily work in academia, but would also be something I could translate and communicate back to my parents and by extension, my community as well. 

Before I delve into why the practice of translating and communicating back the results of assessment to affected communities is important, you should know that the third year of a Diversity Alliance residency is meant to be partially devoted to a capstone project. The project is meant to serve as a starting point from which a Resident Librarian can begin to build their professional body of work on a national level. My capstone project revolved around studying undergraduates who identify as language brokers - individuals who translate information from the dominant language in society to another language and vice versa. The role of a language broker is more often seen among immigrant families, where a child who speaks English more fluently than their parents will act as the family’s de facto translator. 

Construyendo the Study

As my current duties include engaging in first-year instruction, I built a study that was meant to observe for evidence of information seeking behavior among students when they engage in a language brokering situation. I envisioned an observable scenario in which a student was provided information, for example, about a new policy or law that directly affects their family from a classmate. From there, I planned to observe the students next steps to understand how they verify and relate this information. My goal was to gain deeper insight into the level at which fact-checking information and critically examining sources transfer beyond social media and academic interactions to a language brokering situation. The ultimate, long-term goal of course, was to have findings positively impact how we contextualize library instruction, whether that meant seeking improvement, or finding positive evidence of knowledge transfer through this research. 

I know what you’re thinking - wow Sheila, that’s actually pretty interesting. So where are you in your project timeline? 

Nowhere. The answer is I am nowhere with this. 

Applicando a Critical Lens

What is wrong with the picture I presented above? The plan I had laid out for this project would not be able to benefit the community the research is supposed to be for; in fact, it has the potential to do harm. But hold up, how is that possible?

As an individual who was a language broker as a child and identifies as an adult language broker, I am a member of this community and therefore understand on a deeper level when I may be causing harm with my approach, right? I had also narrowed down my population of focus to Latinx undergraduate language brokers, to make it a bit easier to undertake this assessment in a year and further, because I am Latinx. I have built strong relationships with Latinx staff, faculty, and students on campus. I genuinely care and want to improve our approach so why would my project be causing harm?

It’s simple actually: Connecting back to Dr. Stovall’s statement - in the project timeline I had originally planned, the students I wanted to reach wouldn’t be able to read what I wrote. Sure, I could have conducted two focus groups and several iterations of brokering observations as I had planned. Sure, with some help I could have coded all of my data and started to build a narrative. But you know what I absolutely wouldn’t be able to do in a year? Determine if a change in our approach was needed, implement the change, and assess the change for impact. And that’s the most important part of my research. With a 1-year timeline, I was guaranteed to have much data, maybe some initial findings, but I could not guarantee that a positive change would occur for the community I was seeking to serve. 

Cambiando My Practice

I came to this realization fairly recently actually. I attended the ACRL Immersion Program this past July and was working on this project, challenging the assumptions I had made in building it and realized that in wanting to do good, I might unintentionally do harm. I stepped away from the project and haven’t revisited it recently. But I can tell you that when I do, it will start off as a multi-year project timeline and further, will only begin once I have established strong ties with the Latinx community at my next institution. 

So, TL;DR: when building an assessment plan, particularly if it includes studying individuals from traditionally marginalized identities, ensure your findings are not only communicated back, but that your timeline includes assessment of your change/improvement to hold yourself accountable to the communities you worked with.


“Make sure your mama can read what you wrote.”