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magazine home > archives > winter 2006 > features

Two U of M professors tackle weighty problems in far-off lands as part of a prestigious national scholar program.

Scholarly endeavors
by Gabrielle Maxey

Low-income women sell handicrafts and food items at markets throughout Peru to earn a bit of money for their families. Disabled persons struggle to navigate poorly designed handicapped routes to get to Russian subways while nearby, elderly women sell flowers late at night for the equivalent of a dollar a bunch to supplement their small pensions. This semester, two University of Memphis professors, Dr. Jane Henrici and Dr. Erin Martz, are using prestigious Fulbright Scholar grants to help these struggling populations.

Henrici, an assistant professor of anthropology, will study gender and ethnicity and their connections to poverty and development in Peru beginning in March. She will be investigating the response to free trade agreements by local nonprofit trading organizations that help low-income Peruvian women and their communities with the sale and export of their products.

"Peruvian organizations have decades of experience providing assistance to low-income women and their communities, in part by selling the women's homemade and handicraft goods through international export," Henrici says. "Peru has transformed much of its international trade policy in recent years, and that situation provides an excellent opportunity to learn what effects such policy change may have on nonprofit organizations and those they try to aid."

Henrici will live in Lima and visit with organizations in other regions.

"Peru has a wide range of cultures and sites where organizations work, a number of them with small-scale items that they sell to survive, and where possible, support their traditional lifestyles. Almost all of them ship their goods through Lima, so, in addition to being an exciting city, it's a perfect center for my study," Henrici says.

Henrici received a Fulbright grant to the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (Catholic University of Peru) in Lima, which will serve as her academic base of operations. Henrici will work with graduate students, university colleagues and nonprofit organization administrators as she interviews women who are receiving assistance and with those who negotiate the changes in international trade.

Another goal she hopes to achieve while in Lima, a city of almost eight million residents, is to develop contacts for a field study abroad program to benefit U of M students interested in applied urban anthropological research, whether in Lima or another Peruvian city.

The Fulbright project is a follow up to her earlier research in Peru and Texas, and is closely related to her research projects in Memphis dealing with job training for low-income women and with effects of the forthcoming I-69 NAFTA corridor on the local community. Along with the Center for Research on Women, she coordinated the establishment of the North American Research and Action Network (NARAN) to link researchers and activists with issues of free trade, particularly as it related to gender.

Henrici earned her doctorate at the University of Texas and completed a postdoctoral research fellowship there. She joined the U of M faculty in 2001.

Martz, an assistant professor in the rehabilitation counseling program in the U of M's College of Education, is conducting research in Saratov, Russia, this semester. She is examining employment barriers and accommodations for disabled individuals in five Russian cities. Martz is working with Perspektiva, a disability organization based in Moscow, to collect data and develop an understanding of the employment situation for the disabled in Russia. She made her first trip to Russia in 2004, when she began collaborating with Perspektiva and the World Institute on Disability.

"Nowadays, many people in Russian society are struggling to make a living," Martz says. "I saw this first-hand when I was in Moscow. Women who looked to be 80 years old were selling flowers at 11 p.m. in the subway. I would often talk to them, and I learned that many of them grow and sell flowers to supplement their meager pensions. Given this environment, in which many people [even without disabilities] struggle to survive financially, individuals with disabilities have difficulty in obtaining a competitive job. Employers may view an individual with a disability as a liability or as not being able to contribute anything in the workplace.

"My study is one of the first independent research projects that will collect empirical data on the barriers and accommodations that Russians with disabilities have at work. We know the situation is not favorable for individuals with disabilities, but it has been slowly improving," Martz says.

Knowledge gathered in Russia will be the first step toward breaking down barriers for the disabled, Martz says.

"Having a disability should not preclude anyone from work as long as they have skills and abilities that can be used on the job," Martz says. "Stigma and prejudice often block individuals with disabilities from getting jobs and providing for themselves."

Martz's other research interests include psychological adaptation to and coping with chronic illness and post-traumatic stress reactions after disability, attitudes toward disability and international rehabilitation. She is co-editing a book on coping with chronic illness and disability; it will be published in 2007.

Martz taught rehabilitation counseling at the University of Missouri for three years before joining the U of M this year. She earned a bachelor's degree in Russian studies from the University of Arizona, a master's degree in rehabilitation counseling from California State University-San Bernardino and a doctorate in rehabilitation education and research from the University of Arkansas.

Recipients of Fulbright awards are selected on the basis of academic or professional achievement and extraordinary leadership potential in their fields. This academic year, the Fulbright program is sending some 800 U.S. faculty and professionals abroad to 140 countries.

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