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Volume 55, Number 2 Spring 2022
Edited by Chris Keys, DePaul University
Written by Nkiru Nnawulezi, University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Shabnam Javdani, New York University; and Kymberly Byrd, Vanderbilt University
A collective within the SCRA Research Council convened to identify topics to present at the 2021 virtual Biennial Conference. Students, early and later career members all underscored the importance of a topic essential to promoting equity-focused scholarship that has received limited written attention: creating and sustaining community-engaged research teams. The purpose of this paper is to share issues and best practices that emerged from this presentation around creating and growing research teams within academic settings.
Community-engaged research is vital to the success of many participatory, social impact, and equity-driven projects important to community psychology scholars. We examine key issues and common challenges community-engaged scholars encounter. This paper also provides innovative solutions that community-engaged scholars can employ to scaffold research teams that excel in cultivating community-based research. This topic is of particular importance for the success of early career and BIPOC colleagues, whose research teams create a foundation for implementing their vision and programs of research. We emphasize structural challenges and solutions in an effort to name and recognize the thought and intentionality behind creating sustainable community-engaged research teams. This emphasis provides a counternarrative to the white supremacist values and ideals that define what “traditional” research teams ought to look like and what resources, social networks, and social regularities they need.
We recognize that the challenges and solutions we name in this paper are deeply tied to how we are situated and how we position our work. We share a brief overview in this section.
Nkiru is a Black, Queer tenure-track Assistant Professor working in a psychology department at a research-intensive university. I earned my doctoral degree in Ecological-Community Psychology and received post-doctoral research training in Community Psychology. The research team I direct, Research for Empowering and Liberatory Action (RELA), primarily engages in exploratory and inductive methods to understand experiences of interpersonal and structural violence among survivors who experience multiple marginalization. We conduct studies that identify norms and practices that reify oppressive institutional conditions. I engage in mutual capacity building and training with community partners. I also train students to collaboratively conceptualize, design, implement, and disseminate participatory research studies.
Shabnam is a first-generation immigrant woman with young children, and tenured Associate Professor in an applied psychology department at a research-intensive university. I earned my doctoral degree in Community-Clinical Psychology and completed a yearlong clinical internship. My research team, Researching Inequity in Society Ecologically (RISE), primarily conducts community-engaged intervention, policy, and systems’ change research to understand and disrupt pathways into carceral spaces, with a focus on young people who have experienced structural, gender-based, and racial violence. This work includes large scale longitudinal and cluster randomized controlled trials of advocacy and sociopolitical development interventions; participatory, exploratory, and youth-led projects in partnership with grassroots organizations; and training of undergraduate and graduate students to implement and disseminate these efforts.
Kymberly is a Black woman who will soon be completing a PhD program at a research-intensive university. I have designed and led community-engaged research projects on food justice, mental wellbeing, and other topics. I am committed to creating and maintaining community partnerships and have supported several organizations with their research and evaluation efforts.
In this section, we name several common structural challenges inherent in launching research teams that are able to successfully execute the tasks required of community-based research, often not part of the fabric of traditional academic settings. For example, community-engaged scholars routinely build community partnerships with a variety of stakeholders. These scholars develop ongoing capacity-building activities that align with community-facing and value-building goals, and create infrastructure that can be responsive to the emergent needs of collaborators. These critical functions of research teams necessitate a vision and structure distinct from more traditional research labs, and warrant consideration of several common challenges.
Community-based research takes time and resources. Community-based research can take significant time and effort to build and sustain. Building a team that includes trained and engaged members, access to necessary resources (e.g., transportation), and a community-engaged infrastructure comes with significant financial, emotional, and time/energy costs. Indeed, translating medical model research paradigms (e.g., developing a single standard operating procedure for each study) to community-based research team structures can be reductive. It may render invisible the processes by which the team builds their scholarship in collaboration with and on behalf of community members. These processes include planning time and space to develop relationships among team members and listening to needs surfaced through community-based activities. They also involve creating consistent opportunities for the community to take part in and respond to the research generated.
Department lacks knowledge about community research. In relation to the challenges associated with “cost”, the labor that goes into creating community-engaged teams can be invisible, especially in traditional academic settings. Senior department faculty frequently dissuade early career and BIPOC colleagues not to “put so much time and energy” into team building, especially pre-tenure. Departments educated about community-engaged work can value and support it, champion its attention to external validity, and harness its potential for social impact even at early stages. However, there is a shared fear that community-engaged scholarship may be viewed as less scientific and rigorous. This sentiment seems especially salient for early career women and BIPOC colleagues whose work can be unfairly scrutinized and about whom assumptions exist that it is simply “easier” to engage with community members, mentor students, and cultivate relationships. This dismisses the resources and labor that community research takes, including attending fundraisers, meeting folks in the evenings or weekends, working in resource-deprived neighborhoods, obtaining and reviewing cumbersome archives, and connecting to the social issues on the community’s terms (e.g., taking shifts at the local domestic violence shelter, attending family court hearings).
Department or university imposes additional diversity tax. The invisible toll of working in the academy can become even heavier when departments overtly support the hiring of BIPOC faculty doing community-engaged work. They may be proud to add this work and these faculty to their departmental portfolios, but they also may be absent and silent in providing BIPOC faculty with the support, resources, and time to succeed in their program of research on the path toward tenure. This additional “diversity tax” is also apparent in the well-documented pattern that early career women, and BIPOC faculty simply do more service than most. Even when they say no, they are asked to do less visible, labor-intensive, and unbounded types of services. This is especially problematic in the context of the current academy where few BIPOC senior mentors exist to support early career faculty to navigate this thorny terrain. Moreover, solutions aimed to connect early career BIPOC faculty with more mentors can be superficial and impose additional time burdens (e.g., joint appointments in 2+ departments).
Community-engaged scholars have multiple (underrecognized) time demands. In general, untenured faculty have many demands on their time that make building a team, connecting with a community, and publishing in a few years daunting. Doing work that involves collaboration, partnership building, and participatory epistemologies is often time consuming in underrecognized ways. There is limited investment in the research infrastructure that would offset these demands. For instance, while there are “participant/subject pools” available at most research-intensive universities to support early career faculty to collect pilot data quickly, at low or no cost, and efficiently, there are few examples of parallel infrastructure to support community-engaged scholarship. As such, community-engaged scholars may find themselves spending hours trying to secure transportation vouchers for team members and/or participants so that they can travel, negotiating with funders that do not allow them to offset the costs of food even when ‘gathering’ is an essential part of engagement, and securing spaces easily accessible off-hours to children, families, and non-university members. These examples point to the need to invest in building early-career and BIPOC scholars’ research programs.
Desire to develop strong mentorship and training pipelines for academics and non-academics. In the aforementioned challenges, there is limited attention to creating the foundation for training new scholars through community-engaged research teams, including research interns, early career graduate students, and community members. Even and especially when new folks have not honed the necessary research skills, there is a need to create the space, conditions, and infrastructure for them to advance their skills. This pipeline is often central to the vision of community psychology scholars, but realizing it takes considerable investment on their part.
Early career faculty negotiate a myriad of challenges that can hinder progression towards building a successful research program. Many researchers have proposed solutions to interrupting these challenges and creating positive personal and professional outcomes. Much advice is based on individual (e.g., “be more assertive” or “just say no”) or interpersonal (e.g., “take your colleagues out to coffee”) solutions. This advice can be useful but is insufficient to address institutional barriers. We encourage early career faculty who want successful research careers to build strong research team infrastructure (Abrams, 2021).
Infrastructure pertains to foundational elements needed for functionality. Structural elements include policies, procedures, and practices that support how the team operates. Elements related to culture and climate are values, vision, norms, and resources that guide team decisions and interpersonal relationships. Scholars who intentionally design and build the infrastructure of their research team can increase performance, quality of life, and relationships among team members and community collaborators. Initial infrastructure questions early career researchers can consider are: What values will guide this team? What studies align with our team’s purpose? What falls outside our purview? Do we have enough people to support the work we want to do? Have we put together the roles and people to support the studies we want to implement? How will we hire people? How will we train people? How do we assess our capacity to partner with community organizations? How can we both contribute to the community and publish in academic journals? These questions consider context, values, accountability structures, hiring practices; they require ongoing systems of monitoring.
For example, context is an important consideration for designing a training system that works for the research team. A researcher may consider the courses offered in the undergraduate and graduate programs where they will be recruiting students. This will inform the early career researcher about students' exposure to different research, theories, and methods prior to joining, or while working on, the research team. Then the researcher can decide what supplemental training to consider for incoming team members and determine who will conduct this training. The researcher may implement a “train the trainer” model by training advanced graduate students who can train newer students on the research team. Designing and implementing training can be a helpful opportunity to foster collaborative learning and build leadership skills among team members. This train-the-trainer approach requires an upfront investment in time. However, in the long term it can substantially reduce the work of the early career Principal Investigator (PI) and increase capacity among team members. In sum, infrastructure introduces more ease into the daily functionality of the research team. It is intentional, generates leadership opportunities, and reduces the amount of micromanagement for the early career PI.
A strong infrastructure begins with sufficient funding. We first recommend researchers use start-up packages or retention negotiations as a starting point for developing infrastructure. Community-based research teams require different kinds of infrastructure support compared to those who run primarily lab-based studies; therefore, the requests from departments are different. For example, we have directly asked for additional office space in the community that has ample room for meetings, a fully operational kitchen, and afterhours access to maintain our community partnerships. We encourage early career researchers to ask for additional compensation to provide community partners or community organizations support for general operating costs related to hosting meetings, staff time, or other costs that arise as a result of maintaining a partnership. This funding differs from participant incentives or expenses of community advisory boards that operate while a study is being implemented.
Our second recommendation is for researchers to assign roles – instead of tasks – to team members (Adams, 2022). It is more efficient for a team member to adopt a role and, in turn, take ownership of the responsibilities of that role instead of waiting for PIs to assign tasks. Task-based assignments are actually more arduous for the PI because they require multiple people to check in at all parts of the research project across many studies. Research team members are also being trained to be reactive, rather than proactive, which reduces agency and the ability to anticipate needs and respond to issues that organically arise in the research process.
The PI can be creative about the types of roles that best suits their research teams. One role could be a community research dissemination manager. In this role, a team member, likely an advanced undergraduate student, would oversee all social media content (creating posts, developing infographics based on research findings, responding to direct messages, etc.) and maintain the research team’s website. Another role could be a community partner coordinator. This team member would be the community liaison and in charge of all ongoing communications with community partners. An advanced graduate student role could be a trainer who would be responsible for assessing and understanding the teams’ capacity (strengths and weaknesses). The trainer would design ongoing training opportunities and provide technical assistance to fulfill gaps for all team members to effectively function in their roles. The trainer would create training resources and provide access to readings, videos, and other relevant materials. The trainer could also identify external training opportunities for research team members to attend to support their research skills. An academic research dissemination manager could be an advanced graduate student who supports all research dissemination. This includes writing technical reports, developing peer-reviewed publications, and creating conference presentations. This team member could also be responsible for grant development, or that could be a new role, which requires searching for grant opportunities and meeting with business managers or grant managers at the university to learn the formal procedures about grant submission. Project directors support PIs with the day-to-day tasks of ensuring that all studies being conceptualized, designed, implemented, and disseminated by the research team are running efficiently and effectively. Team project directors are responsible for developing and maintaining the organizing and filing systems. They may oversee the community and academic research dissemination as well as training and technical assistance activities. Overall, the PI must maintain a good understanding of how all of these roles work in tandem to ensure that everyone is well suited to their work, knows what to do, and to whom to report. It is important that PIs create a culture of connection, learning, flexibility, and compassion in order to support productivity and growth for members. An important outcome of this culture might be the feedback loops created between the PI, team leaders, and research assistants such that, for instance, ideas for leadership roles are generated by the team through a “bottom up” process and juxtaposed with “top down” ideas from PIs.
Our third recommendation is for early-career PIs to pursue opportunities that align with their current research stage. In the early stages of the research career, exploratory, developmental, or pilot grants provide an excellent opportunity to initiate community-based, participatory studies and engage in partnership building. Many institutions offer small internal grants, in addition to the start-up, to support the early career faculty with infrastructure building. Training fellowships are helpful to pursue as an early-career researcher if they are interested in building individual capacity. When developing a research team, PIs can plan the types of grants they want to apply for at different stages in their career and to have those ideas build on one another.
As mentioned in previous sections, much of the advice available to early career researchers is directed towards changing how they move and respond to an established institutional structure. Ideally, senior researchers within that institution are simultaneously engaging in practices that enable early career researchers to have easier access necessary to reach their career goals. This means that senior researchers create, maintain, and renew resources that support infrastructure building among early-career scholars. Senior researchers may secure sustainable sources of funding for junior scholars who engage in community-based work to develop partnerships, collaboratively write manuscripts with community partners, and disseminate products that align with community needs. Senior faculty and administrators can provide leadership on campus that: (1) promotes the excellence of researchers and their scholarship and (2) demonstrates and acknowledges the value of community-engagement and partnerships for the university and the discovery of knowledge. For example, senior scholars can ensure that junior scholars have their accomplishments featured and made visible across the university.
Sponsorship, alongside mentorships, is critical for the advancement of early career researchers. Mentorship includes collaborative activities supporting early-career researchers with how to develop their multi-year publication tasks and how to say no to less relevant tasks. Mentors may also work with early career faculty regarding how to obtain course releases to do their research, how to prepare strong promotion and tenure cases, and other things related to the academy. Sponsorship requires that senior scholars create the conditions to actualize these “hows” identified in mentorship conversations. For example, sponsors may invite early career scholars to give talks, to be on grant proposals, to use data, collaborate on research studies, meet community partners, and generally engage in activities that increase productivity and support the scholar in developing a national reputation.
Developing a high-functioning research team takes many years of trial and error, innovation, patience, and vision; yet understanding how to do so is critical for a successful research career. We hope that this paper has provided some general insight to those who are at a point in their career where they are learning how to build teams. The strategies covered in this paper will ideally allow early career researchers to do the work they were trained to do with more ease: build community partnerships, develop community-based consent processes, engage in diverse methodologies, and create shared scholarly products with community research team members. The sooner that academic departments can recognize what it takes to create community-engaged scholarship, the better they can support early career scholars to hone the skills necessary to build successful research teams that create transformative individual, community, and systems change.