By Matthew Biddle
Published January 11, 2024
Nicole Capozziello, a PhD candidate in the University at Buffalo School of Social Work, has been awarded a prestigious doctoral fellowship from the Grand Challenges for Social Work.
Capozziello, who also earned her Master of Social Work (MSW) from UB, is one of 13 scholars nationwide selected for the Grand Challenges’ second cohort of doctoral honorees. She will participate in a mentorship program and receive a $3,000 stipend to support her community-based dissertation project.
Launched in 2016 by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, the Grand Challenges for Social Work is a national initiative that brings researchers together to make progress on 14 of the world’s toughest social problems. Capozziello’s project — titled “Exploring East Side Residents’ Visions of Nature: A Community-Based Case Study” — ties into the Grand Challenge to Create Social Responses to a Changing Environment.
“I am so honored to be recognized with this national award, which spotlights the oft-underappreciated topic of environmental justice in social work,” she says.
Outside of her doctoral studies, Capozziello is an activist, writer and community gardener, who plans to bring those passions into her dissertation. In particular, she was inspired by her work around vacant land use and related policies with Grassroots Gardens of Western New York (GGWNY), where she has been actively involved since her MSW field placement there in 2019.
According to Capozziello, Buffalo has about 9,000 city-owned vacant lots, most of which are concentrated on the East Side. At the same time, the East Side has the highest percentage of Black residents in Buffalo and the city’s lowest level of tree cover, according to research by Robert Silverman and Li Yin from the UB School of Architecture and Planning, and Kelly Patterson from the UB School of Social Work.
Capozziello’s dissertation will explore how residents in nature-deprived areas experience their environment — and how the vacant spaces around them could be put to better use. She plans to engage East Side residents for one-on-one interviews and neighborhood walking tours, and work closely with partners at GGWNY, community block clubs and the Vacant Lot Task Force, a coalition formed by GGWNY and the Partnership for the Public Good (PPG).
Ultimately, in addition to producing scholarly papers and presentations, Capozziello hopes to disseminate her research through various avenues at PPG and create a mixed-media installation on one of the community’s vacant lots. The art installation will draw from quotes, photos or plantings gathered during her research to bring attention to the city’s vacant land and the issue of environmental justice more broadly.
“I believe that too little research — in social work and other fields — is actually community-engaged, meaning that researchers ask questions that people actually want answered,” she says. “With that in mind, my work aims to center people’s experiences, creating understanding that can lead to change in small and big ways.”