WFI Research Projects

One of the ways that we enact the WFI’s mission — communication as central to the creation of positive social change — is through the funding of research grants. These awards support the projects of Communication scholars colleges and universities across the United States and across the world. We hope, through these grants, to help support the kinds of communication-focused research needed to engage the complexities of social change and social justice.

Each year, the WFI provides funds to support research conducted by scholars at Villanova and institutions across the world. Although we do not limit our grants to a specific methodological orientation or subdisciplinary focus, all projects supported by the WFI have two things in common: they make communication the primary, and not secondary, focus, and they engage communication in terms of its impact on the world around us, its ability to create social change. The funds awarded can be applied to the hiring of graduate assistants, acquisition of resources, travel, and/or any other appropriate research related expenses.

The WFI Research Grants are selectively awarded. All submitted proposals are peer reviewed and judged on the basis of the research project's quality, originality, and fit with the mission of The Waterhouse Family Institute.

Each year, the due date for WFI Research Grants will be in early May, with funds available to successful applicants in early June. The specific date will be announced as part of each year's call for grant applications.

2015-2016 WFI Funded Projects (listed in alphabetical order)

(NB: to learn about previous years' recipients, please click a link at left)


Grant Awarded ($5,000): The Development and Influence of Heterosexual Television Viewers’ Parasocial Relationships with Gay Characters

Principal Investigator: Bradley J. Bond, University of San Diego.

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual adolescents are significantly more likely than their heterosexual peers to experience maladjustment, depression, and suicide. Anti-gay bullying and discrimination from the heterosexual majority have been implicated as toxic contributors to the negative health outcomes associated with developing a gay, lesbian, or bisexual (i.e., sexual minority) identity. Research suggests that depictions of gay characters on television could increase the emotional health and well-being of sexual minorities by altering heterosexual viewers’ attitudes toward sexual minorities. Little is known, however, about the underlying mechanisms through which television influences heterosexuals’ attitudes. This study will track the development of parasocial relationships between heterosexual audiences and gay television characters over time, examine how heterosexual audiences’ parasocial relationships with gay characters vary based on the sexual explicitness of the gay characters’ behaviors, and test the relationship between heterosexual viewers’ parasocial relationships with gay characters and their endorsement of gay equality. This study will be the first to track the development of parasocial relationships over time using an adult sample and among the first to empirically examine the underlying processes through which television influences heterosexuals’ attitudes toward sexual minorities. 


Grant Awarded ($5,000): León’s Graffiti Worlds: Citizen Voices in Aerosol, Graffiti as Communication Practice

Principal Investigator: Caitlin Bruce, University of Pittsburgh.

This book project, León’s Graffiti Worlds: Citizen Voices in Aerosol, Graffiti as Communication Practice, explores the history of graffiti in León Guanajuato Mexico from 2000 to 2015, built from extensive interviews I conducted between 2012 and 2017 with graffiti practitioners (writers) as well as institutional supporters and local historians. In the book, I argue that graffiti is a vital form of public communication and social critique, and a means of social change. León is the first city where city-supported legal graffiti has been promoted on a large scale, and the 2009-2012 pilot program was generally described as an unmitigated success by city sources. However, drawing on writer testimony and archival documents, I chart a more complex trajectory. I map the evolving status of the graffiti writer: from delinquent, to civic exemplar, to employee of the state, to a not-yet-resolved status. It is through this public art form that León’s youth challenge violent state politics; corrosive capitalism; and exploitative international relations, and yet, this form of communication is under analyzed in communication studies, and is often misunderstood, seen either as mindless vandalism or erudite and straightforward refusal, rather than the complex and often ambivalent territory it straddles: a form of expression between the official and the vernacular, the legal and the illegal. This project is the first large-scale study of legal graffiti, and the first study of legal graffiti from a communication studies perspective that relies on writer testimony. By engaging with artists and activists, and documenting their work and their voices, this project rebuts stereotypes or clichés about graffiti artists, and serves as support for future cases about the key role the public art can play in making city spaces and urban communities more inclusive and more just.


Grant Awarded ($10,000): “Puerto Rico on the Brink”: Communicating Energy Justice amidst Intersectional Crises 

Principal Investigator: Kathleen M. de Onís, Indiana University-Bloomington.

Puerto Rico has endured a long, violent colonial history marked by economic, political, and environmental exploitation. Since 1898, the Island nation has been constrained by U.S. political dictates and legal impositions. One effect of U.S. colonialism is Puerto Rico’s current $73 billion debt, which may require the local government to cease operations in a few months because of insufficient funds. This economic crisis is partially attributed to the Island’s public utility company, which distributes imported fossil fuels for electricity, especially costly petroleum. As Puerto Rico’s entangled political, economic, and energy situation continues to deteriorate, the United States’ once docile “rich port” is now perceived by some as an uncontrollable, expensive burden for the United States. During the summers of 2015 and 2016, I will visit Puerto Rico to examine how local grassroots communities communicate about and seek to intervene in energy and environmental controversies. I employ rhetorical field methods and turn to scholarship on countervisuality, cultural nationalism, and social imaginaries as frameworks for my engagement with Island Puerto Rican activist voices. This project involves local community members beyond initial field encounters by 1) requesting their feedback on my academic writing; 2) working collaboratively and transnationally with Puerto Rican scholars who study local energy and environmental concerns; and 3) producing a community-generated documentary film about environmental communication for audiences in the U.S. mainland and Puerto Rico. My study evinces how marginalized discourses can encourage transnational, decolonial ways of thinking about and enacting economic, political, and energy justice by decentering communication studies’ focus on extractive industry corporate discourses, popular media, and mainland contexts. In so doing, this project will help communication scholars attend to the intersection of environmental and colonial abuses, the complexities of a just transition to renewable energy in different contexts, and the pivotal role of vernacular discourse in shaping these processes. This project also offers local activists opportunities for reflection on and heightened awareness about the efficacy of their own language choices, message framing, and modes of protest. Such contributions are both timely and urgent, as Puerto Rico teeters “on the brink.” 


Grant Awarded ($8,594): Finding the Impact Zone: Testing Health News for the Native American Audience 

Principal Investigators: Sherice Gearhart (PI) and Teresa Trumbly-Lamsam, University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Minority news audiences are known to rely heavily on news media for health information, and the trust and effectiveness of that information is greatly enhanced when it appears in ethic media. For Native Americans, an at-risk population that suffers from staggering health disparities, tribal newspapers are the most consumed form of news media. However, little is known about the effectiveness of health news targeted specifically to the Native audience. This proposed experiment will present the first systematic attempt at analyzing the impact of such messages, effectively filling a gap in existent health communication research. The expectation is that this work will indicate what elements of reported news stories Native Americans see as credible, which messages are capable of imparting knowledge, influencing attitude changes, and inducing positive behaviors that can result in their improved health. These results have the robust potential to impart significant practical importance as our community partners and other health and media groups utilize this information to better reach Native peoples. 


Grant Awarded ($3,000): Examining University Students’ Sense-Makings About Diversity, Difference, and Race: A Cross-Regional Study

Principal Investigator: Rona Tamiko Halualani, San Jose State University.

Since Census 2000, the U.S. media has regularly highlighted dramatic shifts in the nation’s burgeoning demographic diversity. For example, news reports feature the huge influx of Asian and Latino immigrants and the widespread growth of Asian and Latino communities in areas historically established by Whites/European Americans. The university – now deemed as the multicultural university — stands as one of the few remaining contexts in which societal members (as students) have the opportunity to interact with racially/ethnically different persons. In such a context, with major demographic shifts, university educators/administrators have made efforts to engage diversity by, for example, developing General Education diversity curricula and creating campus programs that facilitate intercultural cooperation. However, such moves have masked the university’s presumption that, with the presence of diversity, racially/ethnically different students will “naturally” and positively interact with each other. Diversity has, therefore, become a heavily emphasized and taken-for granted campus slogan for universities. Hence, there is a dearth of knowledge about how today’s college students actually interface with and experience diversity from their own lived perspectives and identities. Such information is necessary to reconceptualize diversity as more than just a superficial feature of campus life but an active issue of concern that requires deep analysis, reflection, and appropriate action from the perspective of those who are most affected by diversity shifts and initiatives at the multicultural university: college students. This proposal stands as a one year-study of how college students understand and make sense of diversity, difference, and race in their lives. In this study, I will interview 75 students from various backgrounds across three multicultural universities in three separate regions of the United States. Such a study stands as the first of its kind in the Communication discipline in a) providing much needed information about how today’s university students subjectively process and understand diversity, difference, and race across regions, and b) uncovering student attitudes towards diversity and motivations/obstacles for engaging in intercultural contact.


Grant Awarded ($2,800): Evaluating Participatory Budgeting in Greensboro 

Principal Investigator: Spoma Jovanovic, University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

Our communities provide the greatest hope for experiencing democracy in action. By upholding public participation and deliberative processes as central to communal life, a strong democracy is possible as the collective will of people is ignited. This research examines the phenomenon of community engagement in local political processes by evaluating the ways people communicate and participate with the City of Greensboro’s inaugural Participatory Budgeting (PB) process. PB is an open, democratic process that builds the capacity of ordinary community members to deliberate and decide how to spend a part of the city’s budget to make their city a better place to live. After four years of grassroots organizing efforts in Greensboro [some of which were made possible by a previously-awarded WFI Research Grant], $500,000 was approved by the City Council in October 2014 for projects to be implemented in 2016-2017. Nearly a year of community meetings and proposal development will occur in 2015-2016 when the public voting on the first round of PB is completed. Program evaluation throughout the process up until the time of public voting is viewed as critical to accomplish three distinct, yet interrelated goals: first, it will provide data for the City of Greensboro to determine how much money in subsequent years to invest in PB, based in part on the quality and quantity of community participation; second, the data will be used relate the experiences of PB in Greensboro to other PB processes in the United States and around the world for the purposes of improving the process; third, the research will contribute to the body of communication scholarship focused on advancing social justice by encouraging historically underrepresented voices to be fully integrated into processes for social change. 


Grant Awarded ($7,500): Art to Heal: JMSS Art as Visual Civic Discourse

Principal Investigator: JongHwa Lee, Hawaii Pacific University.

The purpose of this research is to assess the artworks by the survivors of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery (JMSS) as artifacts of civic discourse, in the context of civic history museum projects and memory politics in North East Asia. First, ‘giving a testimony’ (and offering a counter-narrative) by the survivors of JMSS, often organized and created by the NGOs (for women’s/human rights), worked more as an ‘act’ of resistance rather than ‘textual’ addendum, which is performative and visual ways of taking a stand or making a statement, and spatially and temporally sharing of a civic experience. The second common form, yet ‘creative’ way, to express their ‘view’ is through their artworks. Originally, the survivors started their art projects more for ‘therapeutic healing effects’ in more private and intimate settings (as opposed to the public setting of giving a testimony), yet some of the artworks (paintings and pressed-flower works) provide powerful visual images, often beyond what words could explain, that exposed and testified to the horrors of JMSS. Together in oral testimony and in visual artifacts, the survivors produced a counter-civic discourse – scene and form to influence and challenge public perception/knowledge on JMSS. Specifically, the study analyzes the artworks as (1) ‘visual rhetoric’ (visual application of and implications for rhetorical consciousness) and (2) ‘visual evidence/witness’ (as mental images, phantasmata) in the construction of public memory, for the survivors’ artworks often appear in various civic history museums as powerful visual representation of JMSS to expose and to testify the hardships during and after the JMSS. Grounded in a critical/cultural rhetorical scholarship, this research also intends to contribute to a broader public discussion on the politics of civic memory projects, and on the historical justice and reconciliation in North East (NE) Asia. 


Grant Awarded ($5,000): Identifying with a Stereotype: Disentangling the Societal Effects of Latino Television Characters

Principal Investigators: Bryan McLaughlin (PI) and Nathian S. Rodriguez, Texas Tech University.

The emerging mediated intergroup contact literature provides optimism that minority television characters can reduce prejudice against minorities, which should ultimately help achieve positive social change. This stands in sharp contrast to the long history of scholarship demonstrating the negative effects of media stereotypes. Thus, there is a need to develop theoretical models that can bridge the gap between these opposing camps. This proposal seeks support to advance our concept of stereotyped identification – the idea that cognitively identifying with fictional characters can increase acceptance of minorities, while reinforcing implicit stereotypes – in the context of Latino television characters. Specifically, we plan to conduct three studies that should advance the understanding about the range of ways different minority portrayals can affect attitudes towards, and stereotypes about, minorities. Study 1 will be a content analysis of network, cable, premium pay, and online streaming television shows to determine if, and how, they feature Latino characters. Study 2 will test our hypothesized model with a national survey. Study 3 will be a laboratory experiment in which undergraduate students view multiple sitcom episodes featuring either a stereotypical or counter stereotypical Latina. Ultimately, we hope that these studies will produce substantive findings that will help scholars, social activists, and media practitioners understand what types of minority portrayals can promote social justice, while raising awareness about how well-intentioned television characters can fail.


Grant Awarded ($9,192): Double Codes: Exploring Revolutionary Indigenous Communication in Bolivia

Principal Investigator: Ramesh Srinivasan, UCLA.

Digital technologies and the Internet have increasingly been interwoven into a range of policies and practices within the nation of Bolivia. This is notable because the ways in which technologies are ‘imagined’ within this nation, drawing on rich anthropological literature, diverge from this nation’s counterparts across the world. Indeed, technologies are being spoken about in Bolivia as fundamental to the ‘indigenous cause’, which is notable given that this nation’s population is approximately 65% indigenous, including head of State Evo Morales. Morales’s government has specifically stressed the role of media and technology in their efforts to support Bolivia’s indigenous peoples. These efforts have been part of the larger goal of constructing a ‘plurinational state’, or a state where cultural diversity in its deepest forms would be respected while also subsumed within the allegiance of the nation-state. This effort has been applauded by many, given that it is widely understood how important it is to support the lives of indigenous peoples, given their diverse traditions, languages and knowledge systems. Yet what does this mean in practice? What types of technological deployments are shaping the enactment of a pan-indigenous agenda, and is this indeed an oxymoron? Triangulating my ethnographic and interview-based data through analysis of technological engagements with Aymara, Quechua, and Guarani communities and across a series of projects ranging from free and open source software (FOSS), community radio, and indigenous media production, I attempt to explore how technologies are being enacted relative to the imaginaries coming from the State, and importantly, what types of actions may be taken to truly support indigenous peoples across the nation.


Grant Awarded ($7,431): Innovations in Worker Participation: Communicating for Healthy and Sustainable Food and Work 

Principal Investigator: Heather Zoller, University of Cincinnati.

This project will investigate two innovative organizations working towards safe work, improved wages, and environmentally sustainable and accessible food systems. From a communication perspective, the Equitable Food Initiative and the Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative are significant because each relies on new methods of worker participation to create social change. The Equitable Food Initiative (EFI), launched by Oxfam in collaboration with Costco, the United Farm Workers, and other groups, created an innovative independent monitoring and certification program for agricultural growers. The program is unique in simultaneously addressing consumer and retailer food safety needs, worker safety and income, and environmental improvements for the public. Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative (CUCI), a workplace cooperative incubator, is at the vanguard of a hybrid organizational form – a worker cooperative based on the Mondragon Cooperative in Spain and a worker-represented union. Organizational leaders have studied extensively with Mondragon Cooperative representatives and are now part of the Mondragon USA Union Co-Op Federation. Using qualitative participant observation and interviewing, the goal of this proposed study is to investigate the potential of these initiatives to transform our theories and models of communication and organizational participation, produce broader social changes in our food system, and to act as models for changing broader discourses of social justice and organizational sustainability. This project integrates several lines of communication and interdisciplinary research in health and organizational communication, occupational health and safety, corporate social responsibility and food studies. Outputs from the study include at least four journal articles and two book chapters, reports for the participating organizations, presentations to scholars, businesses and non-profits interested in certification programs and worker participation and ownership, as well as potential media coverage. 


* Call for 2016-17 WFI Research Grants.pdf
Includes instructions for preparation of proposals, due date for proposals, and eligibility criteria
* WFI Report for Successful Applicants.pdf
For successful WFI Grant recipients: instructions for reporting on progress to the WFI Director
* WFI Grant Announcement-Promotion Guidelines.pdf
Communication guidelines for successful WFI grant applicants

In addition to sponsoring research grants, the WFI is pleased to be collaborating with the CMM Institute for Personal and Social Evolution and the Institute for Social Innovation at Fielding Graduate University. Since 2011, our institutes have co-sponsored a Fellow Awards Program, recognizing outstanding communication scholars and/or practitioners for projects that demonstrate the power of communication to make better social worlds.

A Fellow is a distinguished scholar and/or practitioner who is recognized for:

  1. demonstrating a unique understanding of what it means to take and apply a “communication perspective” and
  2. finding creative and impactful ways of using a “communication perspective” to address real-world challenges.

The number and nature of these awards varies each year, and the three sponsoring institutes rotate as hosts for the awards ceremony.

The application deadline and instructions for each year's Fellow awards will be announced in summer/fall. Check the CMM Institute's homepage for announcements regarding the call for applications.

Our grant program was founded on the belief that Communication scholars' work can play a leading role in the creation of social change.

WFI Research Grants have resulted in significant journal articles and book publications--as well as impact on the lives of people living in communities across the US and the globe. For example, a WFI Research Grant awarded to Dr. Spoma Jovanovich played a key role in the city of Greensboro, NC, allocating $500,000 for participatory budgeting.