A project in the Public Policy and Advocacy in Family and Child Studies class at The University of New Mexico allowed students to choose a point of public policy they are passionate about and present their stances on the issues in public. The class is taught by Chelsea Morris, assistant professor in the Family and Child Studies Program. Undergraduate students presented their work at the recent Undergraduate Research Opportunity Conference (UROC).

Students had to identify an advocacy area they felt strongly about, for example, early childhood education, homelessness, substance abuse, mental health, pediatric healthcare, Indigenous populations, or disability supports, Morris explained. They used New Mexico Voices for ChildrenNew Mexico Indian Affairs Department, and OLÉ New Mexico to determine issue areas. Then, they identified a related existing or in-progress public policy to analyze such as Medicaid, Working Families Tax Credit, TANF, SNAP, Housing Choice Vouchers, and others.

Morgan Ash
Morgan Ash

“While public policy has a wide range of definitions, with various deliverables that result from analysis strategies, this assignment was meant for a broad review related to the benefits and harms of a student-selected policy at the local, state, and national level. Generally, the final submission was meant to reflect students’ understanding about the interconnectedness of policy domains like healthcare, child welfare, anti-poverty, justice, and education and apply that knowledge to determine the impact of the policy on New Mexico’s young children and their families,” Morris said.

Each policy analysis described a policy relevant to the student's advocacy statement, the state of family and child well-being in New Mexico within their chosen policy domain, and recommendations that could improve diversity and equity across systems for families and children. Students gathered key facts, determined effectiveness and unintended effects, considered equity issues, addressed costs and gains, and determined the feasibility and acceptability of the policy once/if put in place and designed their posters with the help of Morris and classmates. At the UROC presentation, students discussed their findings and answered questions with students, faculty, family and friends, and other attendees, including Sam Rodriguez, a training and consultant specialist with the Family Development Program at UNM, and Shay Everitt, director of Strategy at the New Mexico Early Childhood Education and Care Department.

UNM training Sam Rodriguez and McNair Scholar KJ Walker
UNM training specialist Sam Rodriguez and McNair Scholar KJ Walker

Participating students were Gabrielle Aguilar, Sarah Aguilera, Michelle Almeida, Yamilett Armendariz, Morgan Ash, Haley Bia, Rachel-Ann Borja, Amaya Castaneda, Gabrielle Delgado, Makeyen Demaria Gassoumis, Lauren Gallegos, Latham Harvey, Miranda Hernandez, Juliana Lovato, Auburn Manymules, Adamaris Mendoza, Gracelynn Moua, Sicilee Silversmith, Marisa Torres, Kathelijne van Bennekom, and KJ Walker.

Four generations of UNM senior Auburn “Aubbi” Manymules’s family attended her presentation, including her mother Rebecca Izzo-Manymules, who received her Ph.D. in Educational Psychology in 2018 at UNM. The younger Manymules follows in her mother’s footsteps, majoring in Psychology with a minor in Family Child Studies. Her presentation was on the lack of Indigenous language and culture in early childhood education programs.

Castaneda presented on sharing decision-making with families in early childhood special education. Almeida delved into undocumented immigrant health care rights. Ash looked at children who enter the child welfare system who need access to free mental health resources. Gallegos and Mendoza teamed up to present Federally funded early childhood education programs are needed to support New Mexico families of children under 3.

KJ Walker is a senior majoring in Family & Child Studies with a minor in Community Health Education. They are a student hall coordinator for Residence Life & Student Housing on the UNM campus. Their research interests revolve around coping skills, strategies, and resources contributing to resiliency among trans individuals, along with examining intimacy and shame's role in the trans experience.

“KJ Walker is also an astounding McNair Scholar,” Morris noted. “They remain consistently involved in our program and department.” Walker’s poster was related to a current issue of housing in Albuquerque and New Mexico, arguing that “Children & families deserve long-term housing that is safe, accessible & consistent” in a poster entitled A Policy Analysis of The Fair Housing Act & Section 8 Housing.

“My research focused on Section 8 Housing in New Mexico and the historical approaches the state has taken to address housing needs. Housing has always been a personal passion, especially as I meet and see more transfolk who do not have consistent, affordable housing. The pandemic amplified affordable housing's importance to me in public policy and research, as I witnessed countless individuals grappling to secure safe and affordable homes,” Walker explained.

Adamaris Mendoza and Lauren Gallegos
Adamaris Mendoza and Lauren Gallegos

Their research found that the Affordable Housing Act of 2004 and the New Mexico Housing Trust Fund have been significant contributors to mitigating the housing crisis, notably, the trust fund adapted during the pandemic to aid renters and homeowners by providing resources for expenses like rent. As the pandemic transitions into an endemic phase, the fund is gradually refocusing on infrastructure building and repair, Walker said.

However, Walker contends that two prominent equity challenges persist for the state. 

“Black and Indigenous folk are disproportionately impacted by homelessness and rent burden in New Mexico. This can be seen specifically in the tribal lands and colonias of New Mexico, where residents are more likely to be living in poorer conditions than other New Mexicans and these areas have a significant number of vacancies and underused housing units due to rent unaffordability and burden,” they said, adding that burden is defined as when someone pays more than 30 percent of their income on rent.

Additionally, disabled individuals face a scarcity of accessible and affordable housing options as much of the housing stock was mostly built prior to the 1991 federal accessibility requirements, Walker continued. There are approximately 43,000 New Mexicans that live in housing that does not meet the accessibility needs of a family member. 

“While the state has done some really great work on housing, I think there is a lot of room for improvement, including bolstering Section 8 coverage, expanding transitional housing, and enhancing accessible housing alternatives,” Walker remarked. “I hope that my work spurs more passion in advocating for housing for all and aids in state and federal public policy work. And I hope the project encourages students to connect with or find roots in public policy and advocacy, as I believe the field should be accessible to everyone and be part of the impetus for fostering change.” 

Every student in the course provided background information, statistics, and relevant policy analyses that defended their point of advocacy.

“Many students expressed feelings of fear and apprehension about understanding and analyzing policy at the beginning of the semester. To see them all confidently present their end-of-semester analyses at UROC, in front of stakeholders, reminds us that an entire generation can be motivated and empowered to make change,” Morris remarked.

A list of student authors and their advocacy statements, as well as the policy they analyzed, is listed below. The course, FCS481, is typically offered each semester through the College of Education and Human Science’s Department of Individual, Families and Community Education. 

  • Gabrielle Aguilar: Children who experience trauma require multiple supports (Head Start Act)
  • Sarah Aguilera: All children deserve free and healthy meals (Keep Kids Fed Act
  • Michelle Almeida: Undocumented immigrant health care rights (Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act)
  • Yamilett Armendiz: Immigrant youth of New Mexico should be protected from deportation (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals)
  • Morgan Ash: Children who enter the child welfare system need access to free mental health resources (Child Abuse Prevention Treatment Act)
  • Haley Bia: Schools should include discussions about gender identity and sexual orientation (Parental Rights in Education Bill)
  • Rachel-Ann Borja: Community-based treatment in New Mexico (Juvenile Assistance Programs)
  • Amaya Casteneda: Schools and families should use a shared decision-making model to develop IEPs when determining what is best for the child (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act)
  • Makeyen Demaria Gassmousis: Decrease the number of newborns exposed to addicted mothers (Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act [CAPTA] and Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act)
  • Latham Harvey: Missing and murdered Indigenous women deserve justice and recognition (MMIW Policy)
  • Miranda Hernandez: Protection and rehabilitation of survivors and victims of violence must be provided(Violence Against Women Act)
  • Juliana Lovato: Women who are domestically abused deserve effective psychological health services (Family Violence Prevention and Services Act)
  • Aubbi Manymules: Public school coursework should be more inclusive of Native American languages (Bilingual Multicultural Education Act)
  • Adamaris Mendoza and Lauren Gallegos: Federally funded early childhood education programs are needed to support New Mexico families of children under 3 (Early Head Start Act)
  • Gracelynn Moua: Children should be provided with safe environments (CAPTA)
  • Sicilee Silversmith: Native Americans should be provided affordable and accessible mental health services(Affordable Care Act)
  • Marisa Torres: Homeless and foster care children deserve proper education (McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act)
  • Kathelijne van Bennekom: Make paid family and medical leave available for all New Mexico workers (Family and Medical Leave Act)
  • KJ Walker: Children and families deserve long-term housing that is safe, accessible, and consistent (Fair Housing Act and Section 8 Housing)