The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 22, 2017

How can researchers and community members work together to reduce violence?

Earlier this week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new initiative, the National Public Safety Partnership, offering federal resources to help cities combat violence and boost public safety. But there is a troubled history of such resources being delivered based on policymakers guessing at community members’ needs, rather than engaging community members as equals.

To equip policymakers with data to make informed decisions, researchers must work closely with affected residents to produce responsive research. Traditional research that gathers data on community perceptions of police often fails to survey people living in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods—people who are most exposed to policing practices. The resulting data paint a limited, and often biased, picture.

Community-based participatory research (CBPR) offers an alternative to traditional research

Though CBPR is not a new approach, it is also not commonly used, requiring a team of researchers and community members to share equally in decisions about the research agenda.

A CBPR agenda is not focused on preconceived notions of what should be studied and to what end. Instead, CBPR prioritizes the experiences and needs of community members. Furthermore, community-based participatory researchers fairly compensate community members, meet in their spaces, and empower community members to drive change based on the outcomes of the research.

The Community Voices project is an example of Urban Institute putting CBPR principles to practice. Through Community Voices, Urban researchers and cofounders of the Austin Justice Coalition  collaborate with community members most affected by police presence to elevate residents’ experiences and drive police reform.

At last month’s DC Ideas Fest, Justice Policy Center director Nancy La Vigne, scholar sade adeeyo, The Future Foundation executive director Aiyi’nah Ford, and Metropolitan Police Department patrol chief Robert Contee discussed what makes CBPR projects and partnerships effective.

The success of Community Voices and similar CBPR projects depends on transforming the traditional researcher-researched dynamic into a collaborative process that empowers and builds capacity for everyone (researchers, policymakers, practitioners, and community members) to drive change. The panelists provided three primary lessons for CBPR.

  1. Researchers must see community knowledge and experience as equal to “scientific” research knowledge and recognize the limits of their expertise. “You can’t be competent in someone else’s culture or lived experience—you can have a level of cultural humility,” said adeeyo, a sentiment echoed by Ford, who described “problematic” experiences with researchers “going through the steps” without a sincere respect for community members.
  2. Researchers need to meet community members where they are and reach out and listen to those who aren’t showing up at community meetings. These projects are about elevating the true perspectives of community members and not tokenizing them. “I never want to take for granted that the 10 people who come to the meeting represent the voice of the community,” said Contee.
  3. Researchers should stay involved with communities. They owe it to their partners to remain a team, advocating for change and continuing to research the effectiveness of that change. “Organizing with that data, or advocating, is where we’ll get it right. Being willing to do that hand in hand is where we’ll be able to get it right,” said Ford.

CBPR begins with the belief that residents are experts of their communities

Community Voices engages community members and police in a survey design process to collect data that represents the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of people most affected by crime, policing, and equity in the criminal justice system.

But for the data to carry weight, Community Voices must be undertaken in a manner that is valid to both community residents and law enforcement. There is still work to be done for researchers to adequately represent the interests of people disproportionately affected by policing and police bias and to be equal partners in enacting evidence-informed solutions.  

Police Chief Peter Newsham chats with Joyce Robinson-Paul, a former Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, as they walk around the neighborhood near Dunbar High School in Washington, DC on May 30, 2017. Community leaders, residents and the Chief of police walked the areas around the Truxton Circle and Bates neighborhoods to address the recent spate of shootings in the area. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.