Friedman, Fletcher students tackle recession

Students at Tufts’ Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy recently brought the economic recession into the classroom after spending significant time in Boston’s communities investigating the downturn’s effects on the people with which they regularly interact.

The students, who are part of a qualitative research methods course, were instructed to choose a specific community within the greater Boston area and, using ethnographic research methods, to document how the crisis materialized into altered financial attitudes, practices and beliefs within that community.

The project, according to Lynellyn Long, a senior researcher of the Friedman School who headed the venture, was a means by which students could grapple with the crisis head-on.

“This crisis could be in the back of many people’s minds and … one way of addressing it … in one’s own life was to investigate and understand it better,” she said.

Emily Kuross, one of Long’s students, chose to focus her research on bakeries and cafés in Cambridge and Somerville’s squares. Developing case studies in Harvard, Porter and Davis Squares, Kuross predicted that the cafés would exhibit profit declines similar to those experienced by businesses at large. To her surprise, however, they were mostly spared of economic strain.

“Going into the project, based on what the media was originally projecting, I had assumed that these small businesses would really be hurt by the recession; however, I could almost immediately see that this was not the case as I began to spend time in these locations. They were all bustling,” Kuross said in an e-mail to the Daily.

Kuross explained that the primary customer bases sustaining the squares’ cafés consist mainly of students, already on constricted budgets and therefore “insulated,” and upper-middle-class local residents, securely employed and financially stable.

While the consumers’ paychecks may be largely untouched by the crisis, they do demonstrate intellectual and emotional understanding of the calamity based on media coverage and interactions with affected individuals. This, Kuross projected, would likely inspire a mentality of thrift and indirectly take a toll on nearby businesses. What has transpired, however, is just the opposite.

“With the savings mentality and the feeling that they should cut back on consumption, the customers of these local cafés and bakeries seem to be looking for high quality in the things they still have to buy anyway, like breads and cheeses. There is also an increasingly pervasive idea of treating yourself to affordable luxuries or creature comforts that make life a little nicer, in spite of the negative economic climate,” Kuross said. “The local cafés and bakeries … [provide] foods to the people who are choosing not to go out to eat … but still want to eat something that feels high-quality and gourmet.”

In addition, these cafés provide customers with an affordable space in which to socialize. Thus, even locals who have taken it upon themselves to adopt a habit of frugality flock to these businesses.

Amy Margolies, a Fletcher student and participant in the project, studied the effects of the economic downturn on Brazilian immigrant communities in Somerville, predominantly concentrating on migration trends and remittances.

“What I was looking to find were perspectives of [the Brazilian immigrant] community, the challenges faced due to the crisis and individual and group coping strategies,” she said in an e-mail to the Daily.

Based on interviews, focus groups, observation, life-history interviews, field notes and relevant literature, Margolies found that while many in the community consider themselves more acclimated to financial difficulty due to hardship in Brazil, others — often of undocumented employment — feel vulnerable and even compelled, in cases, to move back to Brazil. This finding is not a novel trend.

“Many spoke of a reverse migration trend of Brazilians returning to Brazil; however, this trend may have begun as long ago as 2006-’07 and has steadily increased with more immigration raids, a lack of immigration reform and the declining economy,” Margolies said. “As one of my interviewees said, ‘I always believed that the [United States] was more secure, but now I’m not so sure.'”

With regard to remittances, many of Margolies’ interviewees said they were able to send only reduced sums to Brazil because they lost their jobs or were able to find only part-time work.

Beyond economic discoveries, Margolies spoke about the demographic’s invisibility within the larger Somerville community.

“I think that many people are not aware of the size of the Brazilian community in the area and its role in the local economy,” she said. “Although many Brazilian-owned businesses exist, the voice of the community is not often heard by those who are not part of it and who do not speak Portuguese.”

Language, however, is not the only social barrier.

“Fears about immigration raids, which seem to have increased in the past couple years, [because] those individuals who are undocumented keep a low profile,” she continued.

Margolies found her focus on the Brazilian immigrant community to be advantageous in her effort to grasp the scope of recession’s fallout.

“It’s also important to recognize the great diversity within this particular community — both undocumented and documented individuals, from different regions of Brazil; be they students, day-laborers, business owners, professors, etc. Mapping out the sub-groups within the broader community is important to understand how the crisis impacts different people in different ways,” she said.

Still, the students explained, their research was limited in its capacity to reflect the broader economy, and the graduate students were constrained by time and transportation accessibility.

“In choosing my population, I had to think about where I could be and what I could observe on a fairly regular basis, on top of my class schedule,” Kuross said.

Despite limitations, however, Long found that many of her students’ projects revealed commonalities across community borders.

“One interesting finding that came up again and again is how the media is playing a major role in shaping people’s perceptions and concerns about this crisis,” she said.

Other Boston communities that Long’s students investigated included independent dance and music communities, food banks, small and medium enterprises, cancer support groups, Fletcher students, pet owners and fashion retail communities.