Whitman student’s research on poverty informs interfaith gathering with state legislators

WALLA WALLA – When Daria Reaven, a second-year Whitman College sociology major, began her investigation of poverty in the Walla Walla Valley, little did she know that her research would wind up on a screen at a joint gathering of the state legislators from the region and nearly 100 members of Walla Walla’s religious congregations.

Daria Reaven
Daria Reaven

This unique moment in Reaven’s life as a Whitman student took place April 27 at Walla Walla’s largest Catholic church, as community members tried to address rising poverty in the region – a disturbing trend highlighted in Reaven’s findings.

Reaven, from Denver, Colo., began her exploration of this topic through Whitman’s State of the State of Washington Latinos project. Reaven conducted a comprehensive assessment of the main characteristics and causes of poverty in Walla Walla, with a special focus on the Latino population. She interviewed various human service providers as well as individuals in poverty and looked at their experience with regards to health care, unemployment, domestic abuse, and transportation. She then wrote an extensive report including recommendations for how policy makers and others might proceed based on her findings. (An important component of the State of the State is to support students to take their research outside Whitman and into the “real world.”)

As Reaven was working to turn her paper into an academic presentation for Whitman’s annual spring Undergraduate Conference, a group of Walla Walla congregations was planning to have a meeting with their state legislators to share their growing concerns how churches were seeing more requests for assistance, as area social service agencies were unable to provide sustained levels of support to low-income families due to state budget cuts. The Coalition was trying to figure out the best way to inform the elected officials and concerned congregation members about the real needs of low-income people in the community.

One of the Coalition members, Noah Leavitt, who teaches at Whitman, saw that Reaven was presenting at the Undergraduate Conference and read her report online. He told the Coalition about her work, which resulted in the group inviting her to the next planning meeting to discuss how her research might form for the foundation for this presentation. The group agreed that Reaven’s research proved to be the perfect starting point for them to think effectively about local poverty.

The dialogue with the legislators highlighted Reaven’s research, and the Coalition applauded her for her work. The 100 attendees all received materials to take home that included components of Reaven’s research.

Reaven is cautiously optimistic about how her research, and the work of the Interfaith Coalition and other similar efforts, might be making a difference. “I would say that progress is being made, but slowly. The reaction of many groups and individuals I have spoken to have been very proactive...people are beginning to understand more and more the true nature and extent of poverty in Walla Walla – and with this increased understanding, my hope is that the practices and policies of the community will shift accordingly, based on the needs of the population they are attempting to serve.”

Professor Gilbert Mireles, who is one of the professors for the State of the State course, described Daria's project as an "empirically driven, theoretically framed poverty assessment of the local community." And Michelle Janning, chair of the sociology department, said, "Daria's work exemplifies the Whitman College sociology department's current examination of public and applied sociology. This year-long effort also has included looking at topics such as community organizing, conducting needs-based evaluation research, and finding ways to effectively communicate sociological research findings to the media."