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Volume 55, Number 3 Summer 2022
Edited by Sheree Bielecki, Pacific Oaks College and Olya Glantsman, DePaul University
Written by Katie Barnett, Kylianne Broughton, Noemí Enchautegui-de-Jesús, Grace Goverman, Jordan Grover, Rebecca Hazen, and Payton Ziegler, American University
Introduction by Noemí Enchautegui-de-Jesús
We want to share with you reflections from students in a program designed to provide experiential learning in community-based participatory action research to first-year college students. I am the faculty director for the Community-Based Research Scholars (CBRS) Program at American University in Washington, D.C. The program brings together students across disciplines in a living learning community for one year. In the fall, they take community-based learning courses in preparation to conduct a research study in their spring class in collaboration with a nonprofit organization. In spring 2022, we had three sections of the course on community-based research, where each instructor created a partnership with an organization to allow students the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in community-based participatory action research.
The following are reflections from students in each of the spring course projects, introduced by each of the faculty working with them. Students describe how experiential learning revealed the meaning, value, and challenges of community-based participatory action research.
Project 1 Introduction
Written by Jordan Grover
Community-Based Research Scholars at American University partnered with youth at two nonprofit organizations in the DC region. High school nonprofit participants at two Youth Centers worked with AU students to create and sustain the region’s first Research for Change initiative, a partnership that empowers youth voice in the role of nonprofit program design and evaluation. High school and college students worked collaboratively in small groups to define their own research questions, design surveys and interviews, and then collect data from other youth at each partner organization. At the end of the analysis, teams of teens and university students presented their findings back to organization leadership, supporting the work of long-term program development in the community.
Reflection on Project 1
Written by Kylianne Broughton
Given our lack of experience as first-years, the expectation of producing a community-based participatory action research (CBPAR) study was initially intimidating. However, we quickly discovered that the ownership we felt over our research was empowering and exciting (team meetings outside of class were often met with enthusiasm, something I’ve rarely experienced in group work at the college level). Yet, these newfound feelings of ownership and pride were important to navigate carefully in the context of CBPAR. Ultimately, the partnership with our teen co-researchers challenged my perception of the meaning of “Participatory Action” through experiencing the facilitators and obstacles to inclusivity in research, acknowledging the power innate in choosing when to involve participation, and recognizing my hesitance to democratize control as a symptom of saviorism.
In retrospect, I hadn’t expected the difference between “community-informed” and “community-led” research to be such an omnipresent choice. In far too many instances, the option to not engage our teen co-researchers was easier; this ideal of “participatory” was logistically far more difficult to implement than I had expected. When deadlines grew closer, the urge to treat our co-researchers as informants only grew stronger. Thus, I learned first-hand that when you are in a position of power, the commitment to being community-led requires an active pursuit of inclusivity on as many levels as possible.
In order for “our” CBPAR study to be community-based participatory, we had to ensure that ownership and power over the study were distributed back to our teen co-researchers. After all, we wanted our co-researchers to experience the same feelings of empowerment that we benefited from. Sometimes, this meant sacrificing time and efficiency for the sake of inclusivity. Other times, this meant checking the intention behind my decisions; was I acting out of humility or saviorism? For example, when the co-researchers first proposed their research questions, I remember feeling concerned because they didn’t align with the research questions I had envisioned. But in retrospect, what authority did I have to make that judgment? How could I––a student barely older than the co-researchers themselves and a DC transplant ––know more about the best interests of the Center than the program participants? Using terminology from “The Student Companion to Community Engaged Learning,” I was acting as a “privileged idealist,” making the misguided assumption that my will and intellect were an effective foundation for change and suffering from the same savior complex we had criticized in the classroom (Donahue et al., 2018). While the project was certainly empowering for me as a student, I had to recognize there was no place for my ego in CBPAR and acknowledge my limitations. In the position of power that we held as undergraduate researchers, any disregard of our co-researchers’ ideas would have been an abuse of power and an ignorant continuation of the savior narrative.
After all, our co-researchers' contributions often shifted our research in directions that we undergraduates had failed to even consider, further challenging our perception of what should be our action plan and helping us identify the saviorism inherent in it. One of the first “obstacles” we initially faced in our collaboration was in determining the scope of our research. We- the undergraduates- came with the expectation that our research would assess the program’s activities and impact to identify opportunities for improvement. Yet, our co-researchers simply didn’t seem interested in such a limited scope. Their enthusiasm for change was far greater; they wanted to improve DC public schools. To them, the Center was a space where they felt valued and understood. School was where they felt disrespected and ignored. Initially, us undergraduates misinterpreted their resistance to our imposed scope as a misunderstanding of our research goals. Yet, in retrospect, our co-researchers were challenging our biases. Thanks to our co-researchers, we were able to recognize that an assumption of deficiency was inherent in our interpretation of the action plan’s target of change. Our co-researchers were not confused by the concept of a needs assessment, rather they didn’t see any exigence for a needs assessment within the Center. Consequently, I’m reminded of the summary report “Keep Dreaming” released by the Village of Wisdom (2021), where the recommended actions were framed as aspirations rather than critiques. The Center was actively meeting the needs of its participants. If we were to limit our research to a “needs assessment,” we would be missing what mattered to our co-researchers. Thus, we reframed our research to be a “strengths and aspirations assessment” celebrating the Center’s success as an inclusive community. As a result, our action plan was designed through an aspirational lens rather than a critical one.
In the classroom, we often discuss these biases and power dynamics in detail. Yet, I sometimes worry that such theoretical discussions may blind us to our personal culpability and prevent our critical thinking from translating into our actions. In other words, our awareness of power doesn’t excuse us from our contributions to power hierarchies, a lesson I’ve had to learn throughout this study. This experience shifted my awareness of the subtlety of power dynamics and assumptions in CBPAR and how I- as a researcher- can both redistribute and abuse power. I hope to continue to develop this understanding of power in context throughout my academic career.
Donahue, D.M. & Plaxton-Moore, S. (2018). The student companion to community-engaged learning: What you need to know for transformative learning and real social change. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Village of Wisdom. (2021). Keep Dreaming: Summary Report. Retrieved from https://www.villageofwisdom.org/_files/ugd/e11e92_06da2139dbef4804a22229caa2db5760.pdf
Project 2 Introduction
Written by Noemí Enchautegui-de-Jesús
The Community-Based Research Scholars in this project were tasked to help our partner, a training school for young adults in D.C., identify the wishes of their students with the goal of informing enrollment, attendance, and retention in the wake of the pandemic and beyond. The scholars collected and analyzed survey data and discussed the results in community forums with students and staff at the school.
Reflection on Project 2
Written by Katie Barnett
I entered the Community-Based Research Scholars (CBRS) program believing that science and academia generated society’s most valuable knowledge, completely objective and quantifiable. But my time in the CBRS program made me realize how narrow that perspective was. Before we ever dove into research, my class had many dialogues about social issues like racism, ableism, indigenous rights, and immigration. We also read a book that detailed the rich history and culture of the place we would be working in, Washington DC. These experiences challenged me to think critically about my role in my community and society, and they also made me think differently about my original conception of knowledge. I realized that marginalized communities share a kind of knowledge that lies far beyond the scope of traditional academia. A researcher cannot hope to understand how systemic issues intersect and oppress a community like those who live there. This knowledge isn’t quantifiable. That is why it’s important to set aside the intellectual superiority that can accompany academia and let the community share their stories and solutions on their own terms.
This shift in my perspective prepared me to engage with research in a new and meaningful way. Our class prioritized our partner organization’s agency in the project from the beginning. We learned that while traditional community service-learning can create temporary solutions to oppression, it often fails to address the unequal power structures that cause oppressive conditions in the first place (Santiago-Ortiz, 2019). We wanted to make sure that we helped our partner create lasting change, and we felt that the best way to do this was to ensure that they controlled the direction of our research. This wasn’t always easy, though, because it was difficult to relinquish control of some aspects of the project, like the contents of our survey. We all had ideas about how we could help them, but we had to remind each other that we couldn’t force our opinions and solutions on them as outsiders. We weren’t the experts on their needs—they were. For me, this participatory framework was challenging to live up to, but it empowered the students and staff we worked with to make their voices heard.
My classmates and I also shared concerns that we were more of an imposition than a force of good in our partnership. After all, even though we all had a passion for assisting them, part of the reason we first entered into the partnership was that we needed to work with a nonprofit to meet our program requirements. The research process also demands significant time and resources, and we worried that our frequent questions and meetings with staff were taking away from their ability to continue the incredible work they were already doing. These concerns caused me moments of frustration and disillusionment, as I wondered whether this process was worth it.
Our research culminated in community forums that gave partners the opportunity to discuss our results. They showed great enthusiasm for our findings and had great discussions about future projects and improvements to their programs. This reassured me that although it was important that we questioned the impact we were having along the way, our partnership ultimately benefited everyone involved.
Santiago-Ortiz. (2019). From Critical to Decolonizing Service-Learning: Limits and Possibilities of Social Justice-Based Approaches to Community Service-Learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 25(1), 43–54.
Project 3 Introduction
Written by Rebecca Hazen, Payton Ziegler, and Grace Goverman
Community-Based Research Scholars partnered with a nonprofit organization to support the dream of a safe, swimmable, fishable Anacostia River for all by tracking sources of potential pollution and surveying local stakeholders to better understand their relationship with this invaluable resource. After doing our own research on the river’s historical role in the community, we met with our partner organization to develop research questions and aims. Together, we collected data on the community’s knowledge of and experiences with the river as well as pollution levels at various sites along the waterfront through splitting into three teams: a social sciences community survey team, a field water sampling team, and a biology lab team. We then presented our results in the form of a website, compiling all three teams’ results in an easy-to-read format in order to share with our partner and local community stakeholders, with webpages containing the information of a standard journal article.
Reflection on Project 3
Written by Grace Goverman and Payton Ziegler
While surveying community members in Anacostia, a woman stopped me after I texted her the link to the survey. She told me how she had been seeing more groups care for the river through research and cleanups in recent years and the complex emotions that brought her––her family had lived in the neighborhood for five generations and always seen it neglected and trashed. While she was grateful for the increased attention given to the river in the past few years, she felt that effort was meant to serve the increasing number of gentrifiers in the area and not people like her. This is one of the several stories I collected while surveying in the field on this project, and each expanded my view of the local community, research and myself.
By engaging with the local Anacostia community through conversations like these, I had the opportunity to experience a striking paradigm shift (Kuhn, 1970, p. 85) regarding how I understood the problem and the community in the physical area our class was researching. While I strive to avoid immediate assumptions and judgments, I admit that I approached this project with preconceived notions. I had envisioned a river full of trash, discolored, surrounded by a community that didn’t take pride in their local environment. Upon arriving at the river and engaging in conversations with stakeholders, my wild imagination was met with the harsh reality that what was in fact happening is that this community had been neglected and forgotten by structures of power that have been filtering the resources toward those living on the Potomac River and away from those living on the Anacostia River. My own understanding of the systematic issues the Anacostia community faced have become clearer through my conversations. As the course work continued, my initial assumptions were challenged through the relationships forged and the scientific observations made of the water quality.
Not only did this project impact my perception of the community I was studying in, but also the role of scholarship in listening to communities and creating lasting change. While I had previously viewed researchers as disconnected from the people their findings impact, seeing our final product in the form of a strategic action plan to our nonprofit partner transformed my perception of the role of a scientific researcher from a passive observer to someone who has a stake in and an obligation to the community. Throughout the project, I felt accountable to the community nonprofit we served as well as the individuals who gave me some of their time to describe their experiences with the Anacostia River. I realized that I was uniquely positioned to prioritize the voices of community members who had been excluded from making decisions about their local environment like the woman I described earlier. This sense of responsibility and accountability to deliver a product that centers marginalized voices and catalyzes change that reflects their desires empowered me to persevere through challenges in our research. While there were moments that were intimidating in entering research as a first-year student, connecting with community members and feeling a sense of duty to them guided me to rise to those challenges and evolve both as an academic and as an individual with civic responsibility. Whether through hearing someone’s reasoning for declining to participate in the research or participating in conversations that arose from survey questions, I got to listen to diverse voices from the community and create tangible, actionable change that furthers community self-determination. Most of all, these moments allowed me to interact with people in the real world in real ways, challenging me to engage in research on a human scale as one person reaching out to another to listen and create change together.