Lori Harris '11 is currently completing her final semester at Smith as an American Studies major. During the 2009-2010 academic year, she was a Student Fellow in the yearlong Kahn project Wellness & Disease, which was organized by Benita Jackson, Psychology and Mary Harrington, Psychology. In the following interview, Lori shares her perspective on student research through the lens of her own experience at the Kahn investigating the health and resiliency of African American lesbians.
Kahn Chronicle: How did you choose your research topic and what most influenced your choice of topic?
Lori Harris: I have always been interested in African American women and health but I wanted to look at a subgroup within the African American community that had not been researched as extensively. I had seen studies that indicated that individuals who deal with a combination of two or more stressors are prone to present with physical and mental challenges above and beyond those experienced by the dominant culture. Dealing with the intersection of race, gender heterosexism, sexual orientation and class made African American Lesbians (AALs) unique in terms of looking at stress and overall wellness. I began my research the summer before the Wellness & Disease project started and discovered that very little research had been done on AALs in terms of their overall health. The opportunity to add to the dearth of scholarly research conducted on the African American Lesbian community and gaining accessibility to a large population of African American Lesbians in the Washington, DC and Philadelphia, PA areas were two important factors that influenced my decision to research this topic.
KC: How would you summarize the scope of your research during the Wellness & Disease project?
LH: I examined the ways in which African American Lesbians are resilient and how they stay well and manage stress. I also explored whether AALs were currently using alternative forms of healing that had been passed down from one generation to the next. I initially wanted to use the methodology of gathering oral histories to record the individual experiences of AALs. The African American community has long used oral history to maintain family traditions and to share important information such as medical histories and remedies. I felt that using oral histories as a methodology would allow me to discover whether this tradition had been used to pass on alternative forms of healing but would also allow each individual narrator to tell her story in her own voice.
KC: How did you conduct your research?
LH: To start, I familiarized myself with primary literature written about AALs. Drs. Shelly P. Harrell, Lisa Bowleg and Beverly Greene were three scholars who had researched and written about AALs, focusing primarily on their mental health, addiction and resilience. I began by reading their work and continued by reading about overall lesbian health from the 1950s to present. I learned how lesbians were initially researched etiologically, psychologically and finally developmentally. I also took a two-week course with Joyce Follet, Coordinator of Collection Development for the Sophia Smith Collection, and Kelly Anderson, Oral Historian for the College Archives. The class gave in-depth instructions on how to take oral histories properly. It focused on ethics, methodology and the overall background of oral history. In addition, I took a seminar class entitled Documenting Lesbian Lives , which was also taught by Kelly Anderson. It was a semester-long class that took an in-depth look at lesbian history, oral history and the ethical roll of an investigator when taking an oral history. I also went through Smith’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) process to request approval to contact AALs and interview them. Once I gained approval from the IRB, I drafted and sent letters of invitation to women who self-identified as African American Lesbians and who were age 30 and older asking them if they would speak with me. I developed a questionnaire about family history, current health, and overall healthcare experiences. My initial interviews were either over the phone or via email and they allowed me to determine whether the person met the criteria to participate in my study. I then scheduled individual appointments with each participant who was selected. Using a digital video camera, I interviewed and video recorded seventeen participants and audio recorded one more. Each interview lasted one to two hours.
KC: What proved to be the most challenging aspect of your research?
LH: AALs have not been researched as extensively as other groups. There were inconclusive primary sources relating to lesbians in general and AALs specifically. Many of the larger studies that had been conducted on AALs or that included information about them contained research gaps. For example, one of the first studies conducted specifically on African American Lesbians was conducted in 2002 by SHE Circle, a division of the Mautner Project, a National Lesbian Health Organization in Washington, DC. It was funded by the Centers for Disease Control, but much of the data it gathered created more questions than it answered. The lack of previous research was very challenging.
KC: What aspect of the research surprised you the most and why?
LH: I initially was going to use a sample size of six to eight women. I was surprised that I was able to get seventeen women to agree to being interviewed and video recorded for the oral narrative piece of my research. Also, I had hoped to have a diverse sample in terms of Socioeconomic status (SES) but unfortunately, everyone in my study came for the same SES group. Finally, I recognized during my first interview that because my research was looking at a specific segment of an AAL’s life—her healthcare—I would have to conduct interviews/narratives rather than taking fully formed oral histories. Although these interview/narratives were topic specific and not as broad as an individual oral history, the process of doing them was just as extensive in terms of time, energy and ethical concerns.
KC: What was the most interesting outcome of your research?
LH: I gained a greater appreciation and understanding of how research dollars drive any type of scholarly work. If there isn’t any funding or if there’s not enough, research outcomes are inconclusive and key questions are left unanswered. Before I started this project, I had not considered how the lack of research literature and dollars can impact the outcome of one’s research.
KC: What other outcomes have you found thus far?
LH: Although I am still in the process of coding my research information, some of the themes that I have found thus far in my data are that (1) all of the women were concerned about aging as it pertains to breast and cervical cancer, diabetes and heart disease; (2) all experienced stress associated with their medical experiences and their searches for culturally competent practitioners; (3) a major coping mechanism for stress was spirituality; (4) all of the participants said they felt they were resilient and believed that being resilient was a way of staying well; and (5) all remembered family members using alternative forms of healing when they were growing up. Many either still used some of those alternative forms of healing or had begun to incorporate them back into their health care.
KC: How do you expect to make use of this experience and the information you have gathered through it in the future?
LH: I will continue coding the research information that I have gathered. Once completed, I am hoping to solicit grant funding in order to transcribe the narratives for future use as performance pieces. I am also hoping to write a conference paper comparing and contrasting my research with research that has been conducted on AALs from 1980 through the 1990s to highlight significant changes or differences as they relate to other subgroups within the lesbian population.