Traditional research about communities typically happens from the outside: organizations are often hired to study communities and recommend solutions for how to improve them, but those researchers rarely live in or come from those communities. As a result, their recommendations don’t factor in the experiences, expertise, or desires of residents most affected by the challenges facing their neighborhoods—making the results of that research less effective.
On top of that, research has a long and consistent history of exploiting communities of color. Extractive research practices have harmed and continue to harm Baltimore residents in particular, with infamous examples including the legacy of Henrietta Lacks, the lead paint study, and the plane surveillance project.
Some initiatives, like the East Baltimore Research Project (EBRP), are striving to rectify those injustices. The EBRP is a multiyear, community-led effort established in 2017 to equip residents with data about their own neighborhoods. As part of the project, the Urban Institute has worked with and trained 11 resident researchers and 6 community advisers in East Baltimore to develop their ability to collect and interpret qualitative and quantitative data. This collaborative research method is part of a greater effort toward using community-engaged methods in research.
Through this training, the resident researchers plan to survey their East Baltimore neighbors about what issues matter most to them, analyze the data to develop key findings, and leverage those findings to attract resources that address residents’ priority areas. The project has already published the first round of survey findings through a fact sheet and report developed by the resident researchers and other community partners in East Baltimore.
To learn more about the project, we asked four Baltimore-based resident researchers working on the EBRP the same question:
Why is it important to invest in resident-led research and shift research power to communities?
Their answers highlight the fact that community members know what they need to strengthen their neighborhoods, and, with the power of research and data, they can drive lasting change.
Ed Kangethe, resident researcher
“What attracted me to this project is that the community is going to collect and own the data. I think ownership of data is of the utmost importance. You have people who come into our community who make their career off of gathering data and then taking it out and analyzing it and interpreting it for the masses, and they don't provide any actual solutions to the community. This project has the potential to be game-changing for this community because we'll own this data and be able to utilize it in the way we see fit. We're using the data to get the resources directed to the places that we know they should go, as opposed to the places that somebody else sitting up in an ivory tower thinks they should go.
“For so many years, philanthropists have worked with people that they were comfortable with to help communities in a way that they felt that these communities needed help. This project proves that, if given the resources, communities can help ourselves and we can solve our own problems. You have people in the community who want to do the work; they just need the resources to help them do it.”
Davina Carter, resident adviser
“I love East Baltimore, and the way it's been portrayed is not what I know it's about. It has changed, but the heart and the soul is still here. Of course, people from the outside looking in, they wouldn't think that. But there is such a sense of community here. We speak a language that only we know: ‘Oh, where you from?’ ‘Uptop.’ ‘Oh, down the bottom.’ When you come to East Baltimore, you’re home.
“This research project is inherently different because we are inhabitants of East Baltimore. We have not only a duty, but we have a vested interest in East Baltimore because we are from here, our parents are from here, our grandparents are from here. This is not only our community, this is our family. And when we come to our family, our people in our community, they know us. They know we're not going to sell them downriver, they know that we're not going to take that information and twist it to make it look negative. The people who are addicted to drugs, people who are homeless, people who are in prison—these are our family members. We understand these things happen in all socioeconomic levels. That's why this research is so unique, because it's coming from a very honest and grassroots place.”
Frank Pauling, resident researcher
“We have seen so many people come in from different organizations or entities and say they are going to do this and do that, and then we see no progress. Once I found out about this project, it felt honest to me. It felt like they were doing the research to actually help the community. I've learned a lot about how research is done ethically and how to do it in a way that you're not just profiting off of whatever group of people you're surveying. And we're actually doing something that's lasting.
“This type of work is very rewarding because you know that you're doing something, and you're not just sitting in an audience. It’s like when you were in school and the kids were on stage for the talent show, and everybody was talking about how terrible they were. But they had the courage to do something and get up there and express themselves. That's how it feels. It's scary because of the gravity of the situation and what we're facing, but I feel like everybody should want to do this. Everybody should take an interest in their community and do the best they can to help out.”
Walker Gladden, resident adviser
“This was an opportunity to give the community a voice and help us get a seat at the research table where we wouldn't normally have one. We want to create more seats like this at the table with other researchers, and then we can learn how they move, and they can learn how we move, and we can teach each other this process and help each other.
“I believe this project is going to go far and wide and is going to really bring some resources to the community. Right now, we are so information-decayed because information's not getting to us in a speedy way. This is a way to bring information to and from the community and to bring more resources into existence. Because it's critical that we make sure the community can benefit off the resources, whether it's investing in education, cleaning the streets, or reducing homicides. This is a new fire catching for the community, and the flames cannot go out. This is just the beginning. And it's going to move into us seeing exactly where these resources should go based on the needs of the community, and then making it happen.”
This feature was funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. We are grateful to them and to all our funders, who make it possible for Urban to advance its mission. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Casey Foundation or the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders. Funders do not determine research findings or the insights and recommendations of our experts.
DEVELOPMENT Jerry Ta
EDITING Irene Koo
PHOTOGRAPHY Rhiannon Newman
WRITING Emily Peiffer