The Waterhouse Family Institute funds innovative research projects by scholars and doctoral students across the world to support the important and complex study of communication and social change.

Since 2010, the Waterhouse Family Institute has awarded more than $900,000 in grants, supporting over 100 communication scholars around the world engaging complex questions of justice and injustice. These projects have not only resulted in presentations, publications and significant public events, but have made important contributions to communities across the globe.

Grant Criteria

Although we do not limit our grants to a specific methodological orientation or sub-disciplinary focus, all WFI-supported projects have two things in common: they make communication the primary focus, and they engage communication in terms of its impact on the world around us and 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.

Call for Applications
Each year, the deadline for grant applications is 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.

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

Specific instructions for preparation of grant applications can be found by clicking the link to our application below.

The deadline for 2024–2025 grant submissions is May 15, 2024.


2023 – 2024 WFI Research Grants

We are delighted to announce the recipients of the 2023-24 WFI Research Grants!

To Disclose or Not: Nigerian Girls’ Stories of Sexual Violence (Award: $9,832)

Principal Investigator: Comfort Adebayo, Towson University

Sexual violence is a major public health problem in Nigeria. According to the most recent report of the Nigeria Bureau of Statistics (2018), young and adolescent girls accounted for over 80% of the reported rape cases in Nigeria, with a higher rate between the ages of one and 17, with most of these reported cases occurring at home or school. Despite these troubling statistics, studies still show that sexual violence cases in Nigeria are grossly underreported (Tade & Udechukwu, 2020). For instance, in a national survey conducted by the National Population Commission of Nigeria (2016), only 5% of the girls who experienced sexual violence before the age of 18 sought help. Yet one out of every four girls in Nigeria has experienced sexual violence (UNICEF, 2020). This project is the third phase of a three-phase project. In the first phase, individual interviews were conducted with sexual violence survivors to understand their experiences from a critical feminist standpoint. In the second [ongoing] phase of the project, I am working to create an online community for sexual violence survivors in Nigeria. In the last phase, the current phase, individual interviews will be conducted with sexual violence advocates and agencies in Nigeria. In this qualitative study, I seek to identify what communication barriers exist for Nigerian girls in disclosing and reporting sexual violence to appropriate authorities in Nigeria. Through interviews with sexual violence advocates and local sexual violence agencies in Nigeria, I focus on identifying communication practices and processes that advance the discourse of muteness and silence for sexual violence survivors in Nigeria. Upon the successful completion of this three-pronged project, female sexual violence survivors would have had the opportunity and the agency to tell their stories in their own voices. Additionally, the project would provide insights into communication infrastructures, cultural and structural barriers that impact women’s willingness to disclose. Lastly, the applied component of this work— which includes creating an online community for survivors, will provide a space for survivors to be able to share their stories and connect with other survivors in a safe space.

Mapping Narratives of War in Eastern Europe: Exploring Kosovar Women’s Communicative Organizing for Survival (Award: $10,008)
Principal Investigator: Erjona Gashi, University of South Florida

This critical ethnographic research study will link communication and social change by documenting and mapping the lived experiences and organizing properties of Kosovar women during the Kosovo War. The study will culminate in an interactive platform that will be available to both the academic and non-academic public and seeks to contribute to the recent trend in organizational communication that incorporates perspectives from marginalized and non-US voices to challenge the dominance of US-centered theories in the field (Imas & Weston, 2012; Munshi et al., 2017; Shome & Hodge, 2002). These perspectives are valuable and serve as a possibility for generating ideas for better decision-making and creating new democratic and participatory methods of organizing (Imas & Weston, 2012; Scheper- Hughes, 2008). They are also important as they connect individuals from marginalized communities across the globe and depict the ways in which people in non-Western places “feel, live, work and experience organization” (Imas & Weston, 2012, p. 208; Scheper- Hughes, 2008). The findings from this study will extend existing research in the communication field, specifically in the realm of feminist organizational communication. My goal is to offer accounts of marginal organizational actors and perspectives from their organizing efforts in dangerous and precarious contexts such as wartime. Engaging with the ways in which Kosovar women communicatively organized for survival during the Kosovo War allows me to create a platform for their voices to be heard and organizing efforts to be appreciated by rendering them visible. The final product will be two-fold. First, the product will be a curated website that includes a digital map of the participants’ localities, organizing properties, displacements during the war, stories of their experiences, high-quality produced audio, as well as images of participants and artifacts dating back to the war. The website will work as an evolving platform to voice new stories, with the aim of expanding to other Eastern European post-war countries (Ukraine, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia) to establish a “traveling” digital exhibition of women’s stories of war. Second, I will produce an academic manuscript sent for publication in Management Communication Quarterly.

Harvesting Hope: Native American Undergraduates’ Self-Narrative Documentaries to Enhance Opportunities for College Persistence and Indigenize Communication Theory (Award: $10,000)
Principal Investigator: Karla Hunter, Additional Investigators/Researchers: Amber Jensen, Rocky Dailey, and Wiyaka His Horse Is Thunder, South Dakota State University

Native American students’ college enrollment and persistence have greatly increased, yet remain behind all other subgroups. While past scholarship has studied the social justice challenges and accompanying solutions for this persistence problem, much of this work exists within Westernized epistemology and pedagogy, or may reify the problem by framing it within a deficit model. The resilience-building power of connection to one’s cultural heritage is well-documented, especially for Indigenous youth. Therefore, the proposed project aims to create a more just social world by providing a platform for Native American students to share their stories of hope for enhanced educational opportunities through the medium of self-produced, mini-documentary films. Working at the intersection of health, education and social justice, we strive to provide a culturally-responsive and supportive framework wherein these students can continue to clear paths and develop agency toward persistence to college graduation for themselves and for their peers.

Therefore, the proposed project has two principal aims:

  1. To mentor Native American undergraduate students in crafting their own, unique documentaries about identity and resilience as they relate to overcoming obstacles to college persistence, and
  2. To collaboratively “harvest” these narratives to create a culturally-responsive, evidence-based approach to enhance a broader audience of students’ hope toward persistence to graduation.

The funding requested would support proposed wages of $20/hour and benefits for up to six students to cover up to 40 hours each as they work to express their creative voices through mini-documentaries for presentation at state and national academic conventions. Additional funding is requested to continue contracting a tribal writing mentor with whom these students have built
relationships, as well as a tribal mental wellness professional with whom many of these students are already close. In three years of mentoring members of this student team, these added resources have emerged as vital, ethical needs to support their cultural development and expression, as well as their well-being as they continue to process the often painful realities unearthed by their immersive development in cultural knowledge and self-expression.

Discourses of Marginality and Precarity in Informal Sector Organizing (Award: $11,734)
Principal Investigator: Eric Karikari, Towson University; Additional Investigator/Researcher: Sandra Wood, Arizona State University

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), workers in the formal sector in Ghana were more likely to be protected from the severe economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, although several categories of these workers lost their jobs or significant portions of their income during this time. Workers, particularly women, who lost their formal sector jobs resorted to informal employment and, therefore, are more likely to suffer the uncertainty and precarity of informal work. This makes it more crucial to study the implications of informal work in a city like Accra, Ghana, where the informal sector already accounts for close to 80% of all work. This study establishes the connections among informal workers and their organizing strategies by interrogating the conditions that produce and perpetuate their existence on the margins. The research questions seek to analyze discourses of marginality and precarity in street hawking in Accra, Ghana. Using a set of critical ethnographic techniques, this qualitative study will utilize participant observation and in-depth interviews to examine the extent to which street hawkers in the city of Accra navigate precarious circumstances while dealing with the marginality that accompanies that kind of informal work. A major theoretical contribution of this work is that it advances Communication Constitutes Organization (CCO) theorizing by examining the implications of organizing and informality in an understudied non-Western context. As a practical implication, analyzing discourses from street hawkers help focus attention on localized policy solutions instead of globalized crisis narratives about Africa which tend to exacerbate the plights of such workers.

The Color of Family: Schema's Prediction of Perceived Realism Judgments of Transracial Adoption Portrayals (Award: $2,024.40)
Principal Investigator: Chelsea Moss, Additional Investigator/Researcher: T. Franklin Waddell, University of Florida

The increase in representation of transracially-adoptive families in entertainment medium (e.g., The Blind Side, The Chair, Jessie, Little Fires Everywhere, and Modern Family) demands the attention of both family communication and media effects scholars to thoroughly assess how these portrayals are being perceived by viewers. The proposed survey study (representing the second portion of a dissertation) will assess the relationship between viewers’ transracial adoption schema and perceptions of realism as moderated by viewer race and trait empathy. Ultimately, this study seeks to understand what predicts realism judgments of transracial adoption portrayals in popular media as previous research informs us how important these perceptions of realism are toward shaping viewer attitudes, knowledge and beliefs. Specifically, this research will employ a survey of White and Black emerging adults as individuals in the 18-25 demographic that represent a unique time of life where both family and personal schema are important (see Arnett, 2000). While transracial adoptions represent a myriad of diverse racial combinations, White parents adopting Black children is the most common combination within the United States, and many entertainment portrayals reflect this statistic (e.g., Luce, This Is Us, The Blind Side, Grey’s Anatomy, What to Expect When You’re Expecting). Thus, the proposed study focuses on Black and White participants as it is important that all participants have an equal opportunity to see themselves racially represented within the attitude object video clips used. The findings of this research will represent significant contributions to our understanding of how media communicate about a nuanced and socially-relevant family form (i.e., transracially-adoptive families) and provide media psychology scholars with further insights into personal characteristics likely to predict realism judgments. Family communication scholars will also benefit from this new knowledge of how viewers (who are family members themselves) are perceiving such depictions of transracially-adoptive families as these perceptions are likely to shape attitudes towards these families in the real world.

"Stop Cop City!": Communicative Strategies for Organizational Collaboration Within an Ideologically Diverse Social Movement (Award: $9,939)
Principal Investigator: Roth Smith, University of Tennessee

Through detailed conversations and interviews with protestors involved in the Defend Atlanta Forest (DAF) movement, this project proposes to study how individuals and organizations involved in a decentralized autonomous movement can gather consensus and work together to achieve their goals, despite lacking an organized structure. This project will build on work the PI has already completed in early 2023, which entailed talking with activists, community residents, and non-profit leaders about the intersecting efforts to prevent the construction of “Cop City,” a 90-million-dollar military-grade police training facility on one of Atlanta’s few remaining public forests. Protests against this facility have been supported by many members of the surrounding community as well as environmental and social justice organizations, and the movement has been widely and violently countered by law enforcement, resulting in the police shooting of an environmental activist who is believed to have been unarmed. The project will be completed in three phases, including

  1. Data Collection, in which the PI and a graduate assistant will travel to Atlanta to conduct interviews with individuals who are protesting the construction of the facility;
  2. Data Analysis and Interpretation, in which transcribed interviews will be analyzed and interview questions refined, and
  3. Dissemination, in which the PI will present findings to the scholarly community and to the wider community via informal venues. The specific research goals consist of the following:

    Research Goal 1: Understand how communication facilitates or constrains this decentralized autonomous collective’s ability to organize for social and environmental justice.
    Research Goal 2: Understand how this collective, despite lacking many of the structural organizational elements that help facilitate collaboration, can communicatively collaborate with conventional organizations.
    Research Goal 3: Understand how the various and sometimes conflicting ideologies of this collective are communicatively managed.

Communication and Interracial Solidarity: Toward an Integrated Model of Communication, Coping, and Intra-and Inter-group Collective Action (Award: $8,980)
Principal Investigator: Weiting Tao, University of Miami; Additional Investigators/Researchers: Zifei Fay Chen, University of San Francisco; Lan Ni, University of Houston; Dongqing Xu and Xiao Liang, University of Miami

For centuries, racial injustice has been a deeply rooted problem in the United States. Despite the progress made in history, racial injustice and systemic racism continue to run rampant in today’s society. Collective action, defined as actions conducted with the aim to improve the power, status, or influence of a disadvantaged group, is a crucial concept in studying anti-racist outcomes. Over the years, studies have examined the various factors that could drive
racial minority groups’ collective action and some have addressed allyship. However, the complexity of racial dynamics, as well as the impact of the omnipresent White supremacy warrants further examination of interracial solidarity and collective action.

Focusing on the role of communication in achieving social change through interracial solidarity, this project aims to develop an integrated model that examines the impact of communication activities at interpersonal and organizational levels, along with individual attributes, on racial minority groups’ coping strategies, intra- and inter-group collective action, and psychological well-being. As an initial attempt in developing this model, we delimit the
scope of our study to Asian and Black interracial solidarity. To acknowledge the intricate racial dynamic among the Asian and Black communities and take into consideration individuals’ experience of racism as well as the driving factors for collective action, we plan to use a mixed-method approach to develop our model, using in-depth interviews with 30 individuals (15 Asian Americans and 15 African Americans), followed by two surveys sampling Asian Americans and
African Americans (450 participants each). Through this project, we intend to unveil the influencing factors of cognitive appraisal of discrimination and racism and how, in turn, such appraisal could lead to individuals’ situational motivation that informs their coping strategies, intra- and inter-group collective action, and psychological well-being.

This project exemplifies the mission of the WFI by highlighting the role that
communication plays in combating racial discrimination and advocating for social change at individual, organizational, and societal levels. Besides providing scholarly insights through the integrated model, we include a community outreach and engagement component in the project to provide tangible support for community organizations and members.

When Neurodiversity Became Institutional DEI: A Communicative Exploration of Neurodiverse Employment (Award: $6,500)
Principal Investigator: Astrid Villamil, University of Missouri; Additional Investigators/Researchers: Scott Branton and Joel Lansing Reed, University of Arkansas

This research seeks to advance scholarly understanding of the experiences of neurodivergent individuals in the workplace and the positioning of neurodiversity within organizations’ diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts. In recent years, organizations have shifted from discourses that frame neurodivergence as a deficit to branding neurodiversity as a competitive advantage. These emerging discourses reinforce the “business case” for diversity that pervades much of contemporary DEI communication. The same period has seen a rapid proliferation in neurodiversity-focused employment initiatives. Despite these changes, only minimal research has sought to understand how neurodiverse individuals navigate their entry, tenure, and exit from the workforce. We seek to explore the sociomaterial and relational implications of neurodiverse employment for neurodiverse individuals and the organizations claiming to advance their interests. We propose a two-phase data collection process beginning with semi-structured interviews of 25 neurodivergent individuals who are or have been active in the workforce or who have unsuccessfully sought employment. We then plan to conduct interviews with 15 recruiters from Neurodiversity Workforce Intermediaries (NWIs), organizations focused primarily on securing employment for neurodiverse individuals. We anticipate that our findings will have theoretical and practical implications in connection to and in contrast with traditional understandings of DEI. In addition, we hope our findings elucidate avenues for neurodiverse job recruitment and hiring that transcend capitalist logic and challenge interpersonal and systemic ableism.

Commodification of Religious Iconography as Resistance in Saint Javelin (Award: $6,625)
Principal Investigator: Lara Zwarun, University of Missouri - St. Louis; Additional Investigator/Researcher: Richard N. Canevez, Michigan Technical University

Russia’s escalation of its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 activated a globalized network of pro-Ukrainian grassroots actors who leveraged symbols and narratives to win support for Ukraine’s rights to sovereignty and geo-political integrity, as well as to fund material resources, including armor, weapons and medical supplies for its defense. One noteworthy example is Saint Javelin, at first a website offering one sticker design and now a multimillion-dollar producer and marketer of goods with Ukrainian imagery, sold to support and rebuild Ukraine. Many symbols of resistance have emerged since the escalation of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Much of the imagery on Saint Javelin’s products combines traditional Christian iconography with weaponry, a symbolic coalescence of religious life and the geo-political moment, offered from within the commodified environment of eCommerce. The brainchild of Canadian-Ukrainian journalist and activist Christian Borys, the moniker “Saint Javelin” refers to the original sticker: the Virgin Mary cast in an orthodox style cradling a Javelin anti-tank weapon. Numerous variations of this combination of
religious iconography and tools of war have since been created and sold with great success. This study seeks to understand how the collocation of religious iconography and weapons on products sold to aid and ultimately expressing resistance is understood by the Ukrainian diaspora, where many depend on religious institutions for connection to other Ukrainians and their native country.
We will use interviews and surveys of Ukrainian-Americans and Ukrainian-Canadians, including religious leaders and community patrons with constructivist grounded theory sensitized to how religion and civic life come into conflict and reconciliation with one another when religious symbols are co-opted as part of civil resistance. Additionally, critical discourse analysis of Saint
Javelin’s visual imagery will provide insight into the process of transformation into commodified symbols of anti-imperialist resistance as it occurs in a digital world where consumerism, faith and identity interplay.

The Waterhouse Family Institute for the Study of Communication and Society
Villanova University, Garey Hall
800 E. Lancaster Ave, Villanova, PA 19085-1699, USA

Thomas Ksiazek, PhD, director

Wendy Eisenberg, administrative and program specialist