Use Community-Engaged Research to Create Change From Bottom Up by Sylvia Pu

Hello! My name is Sylvia Pu. I am a researcher and strategist, and I help mission-driven organizations assess the big-picture impact of their work and focus more on their high-impact activities. I am the principal consultant of Sylvia Pu Consulting. Today, I will introduce you to the unique research design of community-engaged research (CEnR) and offer some tips to help you successfully implement a CEnR project.

Traditional research approaches rely heavily on the expertise of trained researchers to determine a research agenda. Community members are often viewed as “research subjects” with little agency or valuable input for the project design. As we shift towards equitable and regenerative practices that aim to build community capacity to create change from bottom up, CEnR can be a powerful tool towards that goal. Standing in sharp contrast to traditional research, CEnR engages community members in every stage of the research process – developing research agenda and design, data collection and analysis, and reporting. In so doing, this alternative approach can not only accentuate marginalized voices and lived experiences, but also help community members develop tools to create change from within once the research is complete.

Hot Tips

Community-engaged research has the great potential to advance equity by prioritizing community capacity building and community empowerment throughout the research process. However, given the unique relationship between funders, researchers, and community members, some potential challenges can emerge. Here are some tips to tackle these challenges.

  1. For researchers without a deep connection to the community, they can leverage the existing network and relationships of the organization that funds the project to help recruit community co-researchers and build trust.
  2. To strengthen the relationship with community co-researchers, bring your authentic and humble self to each conversation and create a space for ongoing, candid, and timely communication.
  3. If the project has a smaller budget and a tight timeline, it can be challenging to balance capacity building with the research timeline. One solution to maximize capacity building is setting realistic and clear skill-building goals with the co-researchers and focusing on developing skills and tools most desired by community members. Don’t forget to review these goals with the co-researchers regularly so they remain meaningful.

Lessons Learned

  1. The research priorities of funders and researchers can be different from those of community members. For example, many funders and researchers want to know more about the severity of disparities. However, community members are often less concerned about what the disparities are and more interested in the root causes in order to create solutions. It can be challenging to navigate and realign these different research priorities, but a good starting point lies in the fact that the same handful of root causes often result in different problems. Researchers can often draw from existing knowledge to create a research design that will yield data and findings to simultaneously address the research questions of both the funders and the community co-researchers.
  2. Every meeting or conversation can be an opportunity to empower community members. For example, I often hear community co-researchers say “That’s just how I think about this problem” or “I have lived experience but we need facts.” Researchers could leverage these moments to empower community co-researchers by helping them to see that their individual experiences and voices are extremely valuable and the potential to create lasting solutions lies in them.

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