#108 Nov/Dec 1999

Town & Gown: Making Research Serve Communities’ Needs

Academics often get a bad reputation for studying poor communities without involving them in study design. But some researchers are doing it differently.

When a group of ministers from the poorest neighborhoods in East St. Louis, with the help of State Representative Wyvetter H. Younge, approached the University of Illinois in 1987 about creating a partnership, they posed five conditions – in writing – to the university. Residents, not faculty or funders, had to both have control over the research agenda and be involved in every step of the research process. The University had to make a five-year minimum commitment, and had to be willing to engage in policy development, implementation, and the formation and support of a community controlled nonprofit to work on neighborhood revitalization. The University agreed, and the Urban Extension Minority Access Program, which later became the East St. Louis Action Research Project (ESLARP) was born.

ESLARP’s groundrules were a reaction against traditional research, the bulk of which is done to benefit militaries, corporations, or academic careers, not the public interest. Academic researchers who do study poor communities have become notorious for treating them like growths in a petri dish. “Traditionally, research has been done on communities, not with them,” says Jill Chopyak, Executive Director of the Loka Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to democratizing science and technology. “Research is generally seen as an elite process.”

Despite these dangers, communities like East St. Louis have found that linking up with academics who are willing to learn new ways of working has made research start to work for them. These varied partnerships are often called “community-based research” (CBR). For instance, says Chopyak, in the well-publicized case of water contamination in Woburn, Massachusetts, residents knew something was wrong, “but without working with researchers they couldn’t draw statistical conclusions about cause and effect.” Or in Chicago, a group that wanted to work on health problems formed a concrete focus from research that showed traffic accidents were the second most common reason for hospitalization in their neighborhood.

Loka, in its study “Community Based Research in the U.S.” compared the U.S. to the Netherlands, where a network of “science shops” associated with universities receives research questions from citizens and citizen groups, gives them to faculty and students, and returns the answers to the askers. For the U.S. to match the Netherlands’ per capita number of community research studies, Loka estimates the U.S. would have to have 13 times the current number of community research centers.

Universities and Community Groups as Partners

The Policy Research Action Group (PRAG), a collaborative research partnership between universities and community-based organizations (CBOs) in Chicago, borrows from the science shop model. Four universities – Loyola University-Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago, DePaul University, and Chicago State University – and 15 CBOs, including Partners in Community Development, Organization of the Northeast, Erie Neighborhood House, and Greater West Town Project, are the primary affiliates. Like most community-based research in the U.S., PRAG moves beyond the science shops and deeply involves communities in the research process itself.

PRAG supports community research projects in two ways. The Community Studies Internship Program assigns students to work for and with CBOs, as well as a faculty sponsor. The program is open to any CBO, not just PRAG’s community partners. CBOs submit proposals describing a research need. PRAG’s six co-chairs, representing both universities and CBOs, select proposals to carry out. Since 1992, PRAG has supported over 130 CBOs with projects in healthcare, housing, refugee rights, jobs, environment, education, diversity, and more, and has inspired similar programs in other cities.

PRAG also coordinates larger collaborative research projects undertaken by university and community affiliates. Either side can originate ideas for these projects but always flesh them out jointly. Each project has two paid coordinators, one from the university and one from the community group. Everything – from representation on PRAG’s governing body to credit for the work – is shared equally.

Two collaborative projects between the Humboldt Park Development Council (HPDC), a CDC on the West Side of Chicago, and DePaul University’s Egan Urban Center illustrate the effect of a group like PRAG. From 1996-1998, without PRAG’s involvement, HPDC partnered with Egan in a HUD grant for youth, housing, and economic development. Sheila Perkins, then director of HPDC, says at the beginning it barely counted as a collaboration. “DePaul had an opportunity to get $500,000 and needed a community group to work with and we were picked,” she says. “They didn’t think through the community participation part at all. I think they expected to breeze in and help the poor little black folks get their neighborhoods together. The perception by all of the academics was that neighborhoods are poor because people don’t do what they need to do, and residents have given up and they need to come in and save them.”

One example of their disrespectful attitude, says Perkins, was a program called Urban Plunge, “where a group of white students came out into our neighborhood to spend the night to see what it was like to be poor.” At least DePaul was eventually receptive when the community spoke up, she says, although “it was not a quiet conversation.” DePaul hired a community liaison, and worked with the council to revamp their grant plans based on a better understanding of true community participation.

In 1997, PRAG coordinated a joint project between HPDC and Egan on black churches and community development. This time, the research idea was the community’s, and DePaul communicated with the community groups before every step. Once the basic goal was designed, the university continued working with residents to carry it out. Community leaders, for example, helped university researchers realize they had to make personal contacts, not use surveys, to get input from pastors. The final report itself was developed in a joint meeting.

The research resulted in a minister’s retreat on community development, several ministers’ engagement with other community groups and agencies, and a report with concrete recommendations for both churches and community groups. Perkins found the experience far more successful than the first. She credits the PRAG staff’s good understanding of what constitutes valid community input, and their acknowledgement that the universities don’t have all the answers, as the basic factors that make working with them more effective. In fact, she has suggested that PRAG provide general training to all academics, beyond those working directly with their projects.

One Community Group, Many Experts

Unlike PRAG, the Jacksonville Community Council, Inc. (JCCI), has no institutional affiliations with universities, only working relationships with individual academics. JCCI, a 25-year-old group with an active volunteer base, produces two studies every year on an issue of importance in the Jacksonville, Florida, area. Past study topics have included the distribution of public services, negative perceptions of young Black men, and the quality of public education. Currently they are working on affordable housing and regional cooperation.

JCCI actively solicits ideas for study topics through its newsletter, local media, and extensive outreach to grassroots organizations, minority community leaders, churches, etc. JCCI staff select 10-15 of the responses that fit a set of basic criteria, such as how long it will take to look into and how wide a range of people it affects. These are reviewed in a careful five-week selection process by a volunteer committee, who represent a diversity of interest, gender, age, race, and previous involvement in the process.

Once topics are selected, every JCCI study is carried out by a “study committee” of 40-70 volunteers who meet weekly from fall to spring. Staff at JCCI cull background material for the group and do administrative work, while various “resource people” – many from local universities – are called to committee meetings to present specific needed information, reports, or data. However, it is the volunteer committee that calls all the shots, makes the analysis, and decides – by consensus – on the study’s conclusions and a set of recommendations for action.

An implementation task force follows up each study for two years. For example, after their GIS (Geographical Information System) maps showed an unequal distribution of public services in 1994, the Sheriff’s Office established a new sector system for more equitable patrols and the city published an “equity index” on all public services for a few years, showing its improvement in other areas. On average they have succeeded with a little over half the recommendations, says Associate Director David Swain.

It may be slower this way, but with a careful disciplined structure, the benefits of involving a diverse range of people in a group process are worth the extra time, says Swain. “Everyone’s agenda is on the table and they can see what everyone thinks and how they’ve all made up their minds already,” he describes. “And then as they learn together, all of their preconceptions go down the drain. The group process is a learning process.” Although JCCI specifically recruits certain populations, including low-income people, minorities, and youth, Swain admits to a lower involvement of very low-income people, who have other time priorities.

One Topic, Many Communities

Unlike JCCI and PRAG, which have a geographic focus, some community-based researchers, like JSI Center for Environmental Health Studies, are national but limited to a specific topic. Neither a university nor a citizen-based organization, JSI is the nonprofit wing of a for-profit health consulting firm, John Snow, Inc. Among other activities, they conduct collaborative health studies with communities that approach them, often groups with a grant for technical assistance. When a community has a concern about a toxic exposure, says Gretchen Lutowsky, director of the center’s Community Technical Assistance Program, they often don’t want to take the word of a study done by the responsible party or even the government. “They want a study from someone they can trust.” And since JSI works directly with the community groups that contact them in conducting the research, “the questions that are asked are the ones they want answered.”

JSI helps citizen groups with environmental health concerns learn how to access, understand, and use data. In keeping with the spirit of CBR, JSI emphasizes skills transfer and training as much as specific information. “If we just tell them what they need to know it’s not theirs really,” says Lutowsky. “The idea is they learn the skills that are necessary to learn what they need to know.”

Due to the legally contentious atmosphere around many questions of environmental health, JSI often testifies at public hearings on behalf of a community, or conducts studies specifically needed for a lawsuit. Even when community members understand the information perfectly well, says Lutowsky, “sometimes it’s necessary to have a Ph.D. to testify.” Although this role of legitimizer can be tricky for academics who aim to promote the legitimacy of the community’s own expertise, many community leaders are frank about the advantages of association with a Ph.D. “It gave us a validity we didn’t have as just citizens,” says Vickie Kimmel Forby, director of the East St. Louis Emerson Park CDC, a partner of ESLARP.

Benefits and Challenges

Community-based research differs from “traditional research” in more than just who is involved. Loka’s survey of community-based research in the US identifies a number of benefits and challenges unique to CBR.

Research results are more likely to be useful and used. Because the impetus is to solve a problem, not prove or disprove a hypothesis, not only are the results going to be put into action, but if one avenue doesn’t work another will be pursued. In fact, Loka had originally planned to describe some unsuccessful projects in their survey, but had trouble finding any they could classify that way.

Involving community members in the actual research makes the results more accurate, because they bring their own knowledge of what’s going on. Cathy Klump, who heads ESLARP’s Neighborhood Technical Assistance Center, describes the design of an East St Louis park in 1995. ESLARP had landscape architecture students working with neighborhood children. The students kept drawing the benches along the periphery, and the kids kept saying “No, they have to go in the middle.” This went against every design principle the students knew, but the kids finally explained that if the benches were on the outside their grandmothers wouldn’t be able to watch them closely, and they wouldn’t be allowed to use the park. In another case, says Klump, the university had identified a perfect parcel of land for new housing, only to have the community point out problems such as a train line that would keep everyone awake all night.

CBR has unique challenges too. If academics and community members don’t overcome stereotypes and habits and learn to listen to one another, well-intentioned collaborative projects can replicate the unbalanced patterns of more traditional research. Academic CBR practitioners often face reluctance from their institutions as well, or refusal to accept the validity of work that shares credit.

CBR practitioners have developed a number of ways to keep the reality of their projects in tune with their ideals. Some sign formal contracts at the beginning of their work spelling out procedures for accountability or lay down ground rules. Humboldt Park Development Council, for example, eventually insisted that students working with them couldn’t study people, only larger community issues. “They could interview people about neighborhood concerns,” says Perkins, “but no studying why Joe Green is poor.” They also demanded a copy of any research results, as community groups typically do in CBR projects. Community-based research centers like PRAG, whose staff are themselves neither the university-based researcher nor the community partner, can sometimes act as a mediator.

The Childhood Cancer Research Institute, in working with Native American tribes spread over a large distance, spends an extended period with each community, living with them and sharing meals, rather than zipping in and out for a formal meeting or survey.

This kind of close involvement during the research process also helps community representatives learn skills and confidence in dealing with academics, that are not only useful but start to shift the balance of power. In fact, by recognizing a community’s own knowledge, CBR can challenge even the basic idea that a university’s main contribution to a community-university partnership is fancy skills and technical expertise. Says Klump, “[The students] bring hard work. They bring a good naivete; they are able to learn and react and ask questions. Their asking of questions opens new doors for the group. They bring a lot of hope.” She does add, “And they bring a lot of skills,” but it’s almost an afterthought.

This, however, leads to another challenge, the time burden intensive research collaboration places on already over-extended community activists. ESLARP addresses this by working directly with residents, largely senior citizens, rather than the staff of existing service organizations. “They have such strong self-interest [in the conditions in their neighborhoods],” says Ken Reardon, a founder of ESLARP, “that if they feel a genuine commitment there from the university, people will respond.” By successfully involving residents who hadn’t been previously involved, he says ESLARP “mobilized an untapped reservoir of time and talent and commitment.”

Research Is Not Enough

Even so, ESLARP ran up against the limits of even the most participatory of research styles. The university agreed to the ministers’ conditions and set to work using the methods of Participatory Action Research, a peer-to-peer model first developed in South America. The neighborhood residents set the agenda and were involved in all stages of work. The first collaboration’s results, a 1990 neighborhood plan for the Emerson Park neighborhood, won an award from American Institute of Certified Planners. And yet, says Reardon, no one would fund or support implementing any part of it, because badly deteriorated East St. Louis was regarded as a lost cause. There was no buy-in from institutions outside the partnership, and the residents were still isolated.

So ESLARP added an organizing component to its work in 1991. As the group coordinated pressure on local governments, businesses, and funders, they began to see changes of heart, projects moving forward. “We were all ready to nominate ourselves for the Nobel peace prize,” admits Reardon, when he was called to a community meeting in early 1995. Residents, despite their apparent involvement, were finding the playing field so uneven in terms of skills and experience that they felt their contributions weren’t meaningful. Reardon recalls, “They said to us ‘We’re not even the tail on the dog here. We’re not even the flea chasing the tail on the dog. We’re the flealet chasing the flea.'” The residents pointed out that the students working with them were receiving 15 hours per week of training in planning, architecture, government relations, etc. and they were getting nothing. The empowerment ideal had not yet come to fruition.

So later that year ESLARP started a ‘neighborhood college,’ free adult education, modeled on Paolo Freire’s work – that gave residents an opportunity to reflect on and learn about relevant issues. They also added a Neighborhood Technical Assistance Center, since the university campus is 200 miles from East St. Louis.

These three components – participatory research/planning, organizing, and education – make a solid three-legged stool for ESLARP’s work, which they call “empowerment planning.” Reardon believes that in areas like East St. Louis, where there’s an extreme scarcity of economic power, power is very centralized or corrupt, and/or disinvestment has eroded community institutions, participatory research will not succeed without the organizing and education components.

Other community-based researchers agree that the research itself is only one piece. Lutowsky finds herself frequently recommending to groups who want to do health studies to instead organize directly to reduce the release of pollutants. “It’s very difficult to determine a [conclusive] health outcome,” she says. “You need a lot of money and large exposed population.” There are also cases, Lutowsky points out, in which research is there and further research clouds the issue and prevents action. “Every major city in the US has a high asthma rate,” she fumes. “But we study it and study it and study it and we’re not doing nearly enough to reduce exposure, both indoors and outdoors.”

Creating Networks

As with any new endeavor, community-based research practitioners often feel isolated. Some networks have arisen to help end this isolation. Rutgers University’s Community University Consortium for Regional Environmental Justice (CUCREJ) is a region- and topic-specific coalition encompassing nine environmental justice groups and several universities in New York, New Jersey, and Puerto Rico. CUCREJ aims to share the practical aspects of environmental justice research with communities, says Consortium Director Michael Gelobter, through conferences, a resource center, and GIS information made available through the internet.

The Loka Institute, on the other hand, is internationally focused and concerned with a range of community-based research topics and approaches. Loka promotes the idea of CBR through research, op-eds, and the Community Research Network (CRN), a loose membership group of about 600 self-defined CBR practitioners.

Currently, CRN’s major project is developing a set of standards for CBR. Taylor says this has become necessary because the idea of community-based research, or at least the name, has become well-known enough for others to try to co-opt it and water it down. He says he now sees projects trying to claim the designation “community-based,” (and sometimes even the limited funding for CBR) merely because the researchers plan to go into a community, or because they got one community member to sign off on.

CRN’s principles will try to answer broad questions such as “What needs to be present to make a CBR project fair and just?” and will include specific recommendations such as that results and resources must be shared with the community. It won’t be a simple process. Some groups already have their own sets of principles, says Taylor, and some of them disagree on basic questions such as whether the research question has to originate in a community. The principles are scheduled for publication in summer 2000.

Loka’s principles aim to bring the discussion of who research serves and how it should be done to a wider audience. At a time when information is one of the most important commodities, well-done community-based research can truly be an empowering project.


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