Studying Feminist Transformation in Rural Nicaragua
Like lots of people, most aspects of my research interests changed over and over again throughout my time as a graduate student. However, one thing held constant: I knew I wanted my dissertation to center on studying the incredible processes of feminist empowerment I witnessed occurring at the Centro de Mujeres Xochilt Acalt (Xochilt Acalt Women’s Center) in Malpaisillo, Nicaragua. The summer after my first year of graduate school I joined my advisor, Shelly Grabe, on my first international trip for research purposes. Although the trip was focused on a narrative project with women involved in Nicaragua’s Autonomous Women’s Movement (see Grabe (2017) for more on that project), we spent about a week at Xochilt. I was simply awed by the process of feminist transformation that was occurring through the organization; it seemed that everyone I interacted with who was connected to Xochilt (and this included women and men) shared a profound sense of collective determination to work towards creating a more equitable world. I needed to learn more.
A few years later, with generous support from the Reed Foundation’s Ruth Landes Memorial Grant, and a University of California Chancellor’s Dissertation Fellowship, I was back in Nicaragua to start my dissertation data collection. My dissertation examined the social psychological processes through which women who were involved in the organization were able to create the equitable changes they desired in their communities. Using a mixed-methods approach, I assessed if women’s involvement in a Xochilt Acalt was associated with various indices of empowerment and, in turn, women’s efforts to transform their communities with the aim of promoting justice and equality. Together with a wonderful research team, we collected 298 quantitative surveys and 24 qualitative interviews, with two groups of women: one group of women (about half) who were members of the organization, and another group of women who lived in nearby communities, but where Xochilt Acalt did not offer programs. Analyses of the quantitative data provided support for two models: one outlining a psychological process through which involvement in the organization related to women’s increased involvement in reproductive decision-making with their husbands and higher levels of educational aspiration; and a second that linked involvement in the organization to women’s increased engagement in solidarity activities to create equitable change for women in their community. The qualitative interviews provided insight into how specific features of Xochilt Acalt impacted women’s sense of identity, and how the organization shaped women’s goals for their communities and ability to create change consistent with these goals.
I have felt tremendously lucky to do research in collaboration with an organization doing such powerfully transformative work. And, I could not be more grateful to SPSSI for honoring this work with the 2017 Dissertation Award.