#64 How to Make Research More Inclusive - Transcript

Welcome to Critical Value, the podcast from the Urban Institute that explores issues of significance for research, policy, and people. I’m your host, Justin Milner.

The events of the past year have forced a massive social reckoning in the US.

People across government, business, and the nonprofit sectors have been grappling with the role they play in perpetuating inequities and taking a closer look at the power dynamics in how they do their work.

For research organizations like Urban, one area of reckoning is how to make the research process itself more inclusive. In other words, how can we conduct research in true partnership with the communities we are working with?

On today’s episode, we’re going to focus on a community project here in southeast DC, where a team of local parents and Urban researchers have been developing and testing a sex education program for young people.

Quick warning that this episode involves mature content and includes some references to sexual abuse and assault.

The program is called Promoting Adolescent Sexual Health and Safety, or PASS for short, and it’s based in the Benning Terrace community. What makes it unique is that it provides a safe space for young people to think critically about cultural norms around sex. The program is run in a group setting, guided by adults who the participants know and trust. And it aims to give accurate reproductive health information, the chance to ask questions with trained health professionals, access to contraceptives, and on-site testing for HIV and STIs.

So how did PASS get started? And how did a research organization like Urban come to be involved? Like a lot of programs, it began with a funding award and an idea. But what made this different was the goal: to create and test a program model in true partnership with the community.

Elsa: We were able to really go to the Benning Terrace community and say, “Look, we have this funding. It is very specifically geared towards teenagers and to sexual health and safety. There are some parameters that we have to stick to, but other than that, we hope to really offer a collaborative relationship where we can take this project into a direction together,” and kind of started from there.

Justin: That’s Elsa Falkenburger, a senior researcher who has led Urban’s involvement in PASS. Another early goal was to create a program that was culturally appropriate and that would challenge norms around sex and relationships.

Elsa: We’d been doing a lot of different work around what different opportunities were presented to young people depending on the neighborhood that they lived in and really wanting to do a deeper dive of some work in partnership with a community, not just doing research where we were coming in and coming out, and really wanting to focus on popular culture, sexual health, identity, sexuality, healthy relationships.

Justin: But getting the community’s buy-in was a little bumpy in the early years of PASS. Here was an outside organization coming in with grant money and a proposal. And they wanted to talk to kids about sex.

Stan Hamilton is one of the trusted adults and a program facilitator with PASS.

Stan: I was suspect. I’m going to be perfectly honest with you. I was more so like, “Hmm. They’re talking what we want to hear. Now, you have to show me.” Because, once again, we had a lot of programs that come in and they’ll talk a good talk, but then when it’s time to walk the walk, it was like, “Well, this happened, that happened. We came,” so on and so forth.

Justin:  Dannielle Hamilton, or Ms. Dannielle, another leader and facilitator with PASS, was also skeptical.

Dannielle: In the beginning, when it first started, I was iffy. Trust issues with people saying that they’re going to do something—and then it’s not consistent, or when the money runs out, they’re done.

Justin: To be clear, Urban wasn’t the first organization coming in with a new program idea. And some of the residents were wary based upon their past experiences of being “researched.”

Dannielle: I know before me, before I even started working with them, it was people before me that was on the resident council team, or that had other organizations come in that didn’t work for the community. And they felt like it was just another thing that they were going to be test dummies or lab rats. I told them sometimes you got to give things a chance to make it work. Let’s just see what it is, and if they’re telling us what it is, and they’re being transparent now, why not try?

Elsa: When we first showed up, Urban was not a household name, and we were identifying ourselves transparently as a research organization, so I think people were definitely a little apprehensive about that.… So you can imagine that a lot of parents don’t feel comfortable talking to their children about sex, and so allowing a group of other adults to talk to your kids about sex and then give them a really lengthy Urban survey that asks them very detailed questions about their private lives was a touchy subject.

Justin: Both Stan and Ms. Dannielle said they came to trust the research team when they saw consistency.

Stan:  A lot of kids wasn’t getting the consistency at home—like mom there, dad there—or the help at home. But when it came to Urban, it was like, “Okay, they always here to help us out. They always here to make sure we do the right thing.” And the thing I love most about Urban, when situations weren’t so good, they still made it their business to come around the neighborhood, still made it where, “You know what? Let’s just bring them in and talk to them, see how their day is going.” We didn’t have no other groups that did that. So that right there was like, okay, they’re here for the long haul.

Dannielle: I trusted Urban because Elsa was consistent. The staff with Urban was consistent, and it began to become a family because they were transparent, as we asked them to be. And it was like we were a family. We laughed together. We disagreed. We cried together. We made it work. And I love it. I mean, I just feel like as long as someone is transparent and they’re consistent, anything can work, and that’s why I stuck with it.

Justin: Urban researcher Elsa knew it was important to build as much trust as possible.

Elsa: I think, we didn’t disappear; we kept our word. We demonstrated that we were willing to go above and beyond and to be there for people in ways that maybe traditional “research projects” or direct services wouldn’t be. Maybe sometimes there were boundaries that people would normally attempt to keep in a professional setting, and maybe I didn’t always keep those boundaries. It’s like this work happens after hours, it happens on weekends, it happens by text. And so, people become part of your lives. You show up for football games, a lot of our facilitators are football coaches.

Justin: At this point, Stan and Danielle have been with the program since it started eight years ago and can reflect on what the project has meant for them and for the youth they work with.

Stan: Well, the fun part for me—and the most important part—was changing their lives. We had guys that came into the group that was just lost. In my eyes, it was like they didn’t have a family. So it was like, once they got in there amongst the other guys, it was like, “Okay, I got a family and brotherhood here, so I can open up to them about any and everything and not be judged on it.” That was the most important part, and they knew whatever they said within the group, it stayed within the group. It was more of building a rapport and trust and consistency with them. And that’s what made the group work.

Dannielle: I think the youth feel like they had somebody they can finally trust. Things were consistent. They knew what it was, and it was just like, the role model part of it. It was like another home to them.

Justin: For many youth in the program, the experience with PASS has been really meaningful.

Alexis: For me, it was more so about getting to learn more about myself, learning more about a positive relationship and how to be in a positive relationship and knowing the signs of domestic violence, things like that. I mean, I am somewhat aware, but it’s always good to expand your knowledge on those things because they are real in society.

Justin: That’s Alexis—a high school student who is relatively new to PASS. She said she decided to join the program to learn more about herself.

Alexis: I have a passion for like, science and anatomy and things like that. So, when we did our session on the body parts, I was like, “Okay, yeah, I could do this.”

Justin: One key thing she learned is how important it is to know your own body.

Alexis: With the anatomy session, it kind of reflected what I was learning in school. What I took from the anatomy lesson was, a lot of people don’t know their body. So, when their body is not being used as a temple or they’re allowing abuse to take place, it could be a situation where, because you don’t know your body and you don’t know the importance of knowing your body, you allow certain things to take place.

Justin: Alexis has also learned the signs of a positive and negative relationship.

Alexis: I did get to learn about anatomy, but I got to learn about other real-life situations and how to get myself out of those real-life situations. A lot of people get in situations, and then they just stuck. Because it’s like, “Okay, I don’t know what to do. I feel like I don’t have nobody.” But for me, it’s like, “Okay, I know the red flags, I know what things to look out for.” I know the signs of sexual harassment. I had some knowledge of certain things, but this program allowed me to go in-depth and to learn more red flags that I need to pay attention to if I’m ever in that situation.

Justin: PASS also teaches consent. What it looks like, what it sounds like, how to give it, how to get it, and why it’s important.

Alexis: I also learned the importance of it being okay to say no. Don’t think that you have to say yes or you have to go through with something because you agreed to something at first and then you’re not comfortable with it. You can still say no. And at the end of the day, no means no.

Brendon: That’s one thing I’ve talked about in school too a lot. I had a health class in my junior year, and we talked a lot about consent. And, you know, just body language. If someone isn’t really willing to do it. And you might actually not be actually trying to force them to do it, but you think that they’re okay and it’s not. There’s a lot of mental things with it, the mental aspect, just watch body language. Always make sure there’s a mutual agreement to do it, not just be peer pressured into things.

Justin: That’s Brendon. He’s a high school student who has been with the program for about two years. In addition to consent, Brendon and the other PASS participants learned about the importance of safe sex and how it can protect them and their partners.

Brendon: Just want to say to everyone watching this: stay safe, don’t be peer pressured, and have protected sex.

Alexis: I learned the importance of using a condom. I learned the importance of birth control. I don’t know why, but people felt like it’s an issue with being on birth control. I’m like, “No, I’d rather be on birth control than be walking around with a baby.”

Justin: Another thing they learned is that sex is just one of many parts of a relationship.

Here’s Mike. He’s been a part of the program for about four years.

Mike: I got little brothers growing up, so what Coach Peedy and Stan taught me in that group, I teach them. I let them know what to do if you have sex and what not to do. And I let them know every relationship is not about sex. You can go into a relationship and love someone without having sex. Some people go into a relationship just for sex. Some people want a relationship to love, have trust in each other. And you can talk about your issues.

Alexis: That’s not all that the relationship is about, and if a person is only with you for sex, then they don’t love you, and they really don’t want to be in a relationship with you.

Justin: Since PASS encourages open discussion on reproductive health, it really brings a sense of community and trust. Especially for those who don’t necessarily have a support system.

Sky: I’ve never really had a relationship with my family…. So, it’s just really been me and my mentor, for real…. That’s all I really got right now, is what I learned, I taught myself, if that really makes sense. Because I’ve never really had my parents around, but my mother was around—but she’d been focused on different things, and I been having to learn things on my own.

Justin: That’s Sky, another PASS participant. For her, the program gave the chance to form bonds with others in the group.

Sky: It’s helpful because knowing that I have people I could trust and talk to; I could always turn to some people because they already knows a lot. And what we talk about in the group, don’t get talked about outside of the group. So just knowing that is very helpful. I don’t really like opening up, but when I’m around them girls in the group, I just feel we family, and we all understand each other. I feel I really know them really well to know that they are really trustworthy friends. We all can relate on many different levels. No one feels less than, or no one feels more than. We all understand each other problems. So it makes it easier.

Justin: In the end, everyone is much more comfortable around one another. And they’re in a safe and familiar environment, and one that a school-based program can’t always offer.

Mike: I can’t say what I want to say in the school program because I don’t feel comfortable around the people that’s running the program. So the PASS program is the people that watched me grow up, and I’m comfortable about telling them about my life. That’s a big deal.

Brendon: It’s been, I will say, trustworthy. We all know each other, been knowing each other for a while. I trust my peers too, to be open around others, not shy. First, I was... I held back. I wouldn’t really want to talk. I wanted to see what everyone else knew, but other than that, yeah, I trust everybody else.

Justin: One of the other benefits to running PASS as a neighborhood program, is that word gets around.  Here’s Stan again, the long-term program mentor.

Stan: They keep signing up because, one, they know it’s an awesome group. They know it’s an awesome program. And they seen from our previous guys, they still tell them about the group like, “It’s a nice group. It’s fun. You’re going to learn a lot in there.” So, it’s like, okay, as it goes through the neighborhood, the first batch told the second batch, the second batch then told the third batch. So now, more people want to come in and figure out why these guys keep talking about this group. And that’s the reason behind them wanting to sign up more and more. You get a lot of kids that want to keep coming back, like, “Okay, I want to come back again.”

Justin: And Elsa from Urban would argue this is one of the benefits of this type of community-based participatory research. While this type of engagement can seem challenging at first, Elsa says each incremental step makes a huge difference. And it gets easier with time.

Elsa: I know it can feel really overwhelming or intimidating as you’re beginning a new process, but something that feels really small to one of us who does this as part of our work can actually feel really monumental to somebody who’s a community member, who hasn’t been incorporated in a process like this before and who hasn’t been really empowered to take control of their own community, to build out their own aspirations and work towards their own goals. Before you know it, you’re swept into the process of community engagement, and it just feels natural and doesn’t feel like so much of an effort.

Justin: The PASS program has had a deep impact on Elsa as well, both personally and as a researcher.

Elsa: Our work at Benning Terrace changed everything. It changed me personally. It informed me to be, I think, a better person and to understand the world and the community that I live in better, but it definitely also completely changed my approach to research. I was really struggling after my first year at Urban, wondering if research really was for me, and then getting to have this experience of community engagement, and not just engaging communities in focus groups—it meant joint ownership of a project and making decisions jointly and valuing lived experience and community expertise just as much as somebody with a PhD or master’s degree or somebody who has been doing this work from a policy or research perspective.

Justin: So, what’s next for PASS? For one, the Urban team will be transitioning full ownership of the program over to their partners at Benning Terrace. And while the pandemic has made things more challenging, the program’s roots are strong, and Stan and Ms. Dannielle are hopeful for its future.

Stan: I look at it like this: us—as me, Coach Peedy, Dannielle, Ms. Brenda, all of us—we should be able to continue pushing forward what you all started. That’s the ultimate goal I want. Like, “Okay. Come on, y’all. Let’s go to the rec center. Let’s get the kids in. The little kids that’s running around now, they just turned 13–14. Let’s grab them, gravitate them inside, and let’s rack their brains.” And that’s what I want. That’s what I want to see. So basically, you came in, you set the foundation, now let us work.

Justin: Looking ahead, Ms. Dannielle has just one wish for the program:

Dannielle: For us to get continued funds and for it to go on forever.

Justin: One thing that’s certain is that investing in young people with the type of support and knowledge that PASS offers has effects well into the future.

Here’s Alexis with a closing thought:

Alexis: I want you guys to keep bringing these programs, just, for people even older than me, younger than me, it really doesn’t matter. I don’t put an age on any type of knowledge, because things that you learn when you’re younger is going to be something that you may have to use when you’re older.

Justin: As always, we’ll close with some key takeaways. Here are three things to remember:

One, Promoting Adolescent Sexual Health and Safety, or PASS, is a program in southeast Washington, DC, that provides a safe space for young people to learn about sex and relationships under the guidance of trusted adults. It has been run as a partnership between people from the Benning Terrace Community and an Urban Institute research team.

Two, the program has been designed and tested using an approach called community-based participatory research, where the people who would traditionally be the research subjects are instead partners in the project from the beginning to the end. This approach aims to add value to—rather than extract from—the communities who are at the center of research studies and sustain that value by building community capacity.

And three, while true partnerships between community members and researchers take time and effort, transparency and consistency are the keys to building trust, and in the end, the results can be significant.

So, that’s our show.

Thank you so much to our guests: Stan Hamilton, Dannielle Hamilton, Elsa Falkenburger, Alexis, Mike, Brendon, Sky, and to all the facilitators and young people from the PASS program. We are truly grateful to you for sharing your stories with us.

Big thank you also to the Urban-Benning project team: Nora Hakizimana, Eona Harrison, and Ebonie Megibow. We want to especially shout out Nora, whose dedication to community partnership and whose vision for highlighting community voices is what made this episode possible.

This show was produced by Jacinth Jones and Kate Villarreal.

To learn more about the PASS program and community-based participatory research, please check out our show notes page, which includes some original photography from the youth.

Thanks so much for listening. We really appreciate it. Please go on iTunes and give us a rating if you have a minute. And on behalf of the Critical Value team, thank you so much for listening and please remember Brendon’s advice:

Brendon: Just want to say to everyone watching this: stay safe, don’t be peer pressured, and have protected sex.