Partnering with the Community through Real-World Research

Julia Fishman

The Marist Center for Social Justice Research connects with Poughkeepsie through social science and gives students hands-on research experience.


Poughkeepsie Mayor Rob Rolison holds press conference about police survey and city collaboration with Marist

Poughkeepsie Mayor Rob Rolison held a press conference about the police survey and the city’s collaboration with Marist.

October 18, 2018—When Poughkeepsie Mayor Rob Rolison decided to embark on a groundbreaking project to survey city residents about their interactions with the Poughkeepsie Police Department, he and Police Chief Tom Pape turned to the Marist Center for Social Justice Research (MCSJR).

At a press conference this fall to formally announce the project, Rolison noted the importance of legitimacy and credibility in getting residents to complete a survey about the Police Department—that’s where Marist comes in. MCSJR will make sure the survey follows best social science practices and is evaluated in an independent way. The goal, Rolison explained, is to learn enough from Poughkeepsie residents “to tailor and work with our training staff to see what we can do to address the concerns of the public.”

Although this is its first high-profile project, MCSJR quietly began its work in 2017. A collaborative effort involving faculty and students from across the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, MCSJR takes Marist expertise beyond the boundaries of campus. “We’re blending the needs of the community with the needs of faculty to provide real-world experiences for students,” said Carol Rinke, Associate Professor of Education and Coordinator of MCSJR.

Initially, MCSJR began its work through existing relationships with the City of Poughkeepsie School District, nonprofit organization Nubian Directions, and the Poughkeepsie Public Library. It wasn’t long before word of Marist’s collaborations began to spread and government agencies and local nonprofits starting reaching out. “Both Poughkeepsie and Marist benefit when we work together,” Rinke noted. “And, very importantly, with these projects our students gain insights into how to build equal partnerships with community groups that go even further than the typical fieldwork placement.”

That was certainly true for Emma Stark ’20, an education major who was able to work on a MCSJR project with Assistant Professor of Psychology Mary Stone. Stark visited various classrooms in the City of Poughkeepsie collecting data on disruptive student behavior before and after mindfulness intervention was conducted with a class. “As someone who wants to teach and have her own classroom one day, this research provided me with the valuable opportunity to see different teaching styles in action over time,” she said. Stark took the project a step further by collaborating with another student to present their research findings at the annual Celebration of Undergraduate Research, Scholarship, and Creative Activity event (CURSCA) last year. “The analysis we did showed the intervention worked in a majority of classrooms,” Stark said.

Assistant professor of criminal justice Frank Merenda Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Frank Merenda is the faculty member leading the work with the Poughkeepsie Police Department. Merenda is perfectly suited to the task: a retired New York Police Department Captain, he’s very well versed in the importance of community-police relations. His doctoral thesis was on bridging the gap between the police and the communities they serve. “I’m really thrilled Mayor Rolison and the Poughkeepsie Police Department came to Marist to collaborate on this important project,” said Merenda. “Every police department has the goal of having strong community relationships in order to serve communities well, keep crime down, and improve quality of life.”

As an educator, Merenda understands what a key opportunity this is for his undergraduates. “I’m always happy to give my students the chance to work with actual organizations. It’s important to enable students to apply what they are learning to a real organization, especially one like a police department that is, on a regular basis, interacting with a variety of people. You can’t create that in a classroom setting.”

Merenda and his student research assistants have hit the ground running. He felt it was important to have them come in on the ground floor of this pivotal project for the city. With completed surveys coming in, the students are seeing the data and will be able to see how the data informs change. “They will witness how this project evolves over time and how the data impacts police training. This is an issue police departments across the country are dealing with.”

Like many of MCSJR’s project so far, the individuals working on the policing survey come from different disciplines. Merenda’s student researchers are majoring in criminal justice and psychology. Merenda pointed out the benefits of this. “Proactive approaches span across the criminal justice system—we need to work with both educators and psychologists. We easily cross disciplines in this work and can look at issues from different perspectives.”

For Rinke, this sums up what MCSJR is all about. “We’re aiming to develop a broad intellectual community with many individuals working together to research and address problems.”

Poughkeepsie mayor Rob Rolison and city official with assistant professor Frank Merenda

(L-R) Lieutenant Sean McCarthy, Poughkeepise Mayor Rob Rolison, Poughkeepsie Police Chief Tom Pape, Marist Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Frank Merenda, and Lieutenant John Zeltmann at the announcement of the community policing survey. 

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