Urban Wire Addressing Power Inequity in Research to Create Change
Alex Tammaro, Jessica Shakesprere
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Portrait of young woman

Research cannot be excluded from conversations about systemic racism. And if we are to dismantle persistent racist structures, our work as a research organization begins with us.

We rely on the research process to expose systemic issues and guide us toward solutions. But deeply rooted in this process is a power dynamic, an aspect of research that dims its idealism when examined up close. It is our responsibility, then, to put in the work—examining our methods for harmful and disempowering practices, acknowledging them, and committing to a new approach.

Research, even in pursuit of equity, isn’t exempt from racial and ethnic discrimination. Since the Urban Institute’s founding 50 years ago by then-president Lyndon B. Johnson, we’ve had to reckon with the behavior and the environment that shaped our founding principles. But beyond good intentions, the solution requires critical evaluation, explicit action, and accountability measures, often disruptive and uncomfortable, to effectively dismantle racist structures.

Why am I always being researched?

Research has a long and persistent legacy of extracting information. For communities participating in research studies, insights achieved through research often don’t make it back to those communities. And apart from difficulty accessing findings, community voices and investments are often lost or disregarded in the process altogether.

Examining how community organizations, researchers, and funders show up in the research process and evaluating their roles and responsibilities is the first step in discovering space for increased equity and more authentic, valuable results.

As a local, youth-oriented impact investor, Chicago Beyond has invested in people and community organizations with the mission of diminishing inequity faced by Chicago’s young people. Their recently published guidebook, Why Am I Always Being Researched?, asks us to scrutinize the transactional nature of research and its power dynamics to lead us to better decisionmaking and to direct more investment toward communities most in need. Their challenge: if evidence matters, then we must care how it gets made.

Founded in 2016, Chicago Beyond began noticing how, from the start, impact investing can distort the outcome of research if projects do not center the lived experience of community members. Chicago Beyond warns us that this preliminary imbalance could allow “unintended bias to seep into how knowledge is generated.” Instead, committing to and investing in equity at the beginning of the research process can help shift power to communities as authors and owners.

At the Urban Institute, our mission to achieve authoritative, evidence-based insights for the advancement of people and places means pursuing truth without compromise. But in our pursuit of evidence, can we turn a calculative precision back on ourselves and our research process?

Power inequities are opportunities for change

In a recent presentation at Urban, Chicago Beyond’s Shruti Jayaraman and Ifeanyi Nwachukwu guided us through a close and often uncomfortable examination of our research methods, creating space for us to critically assess how we view the limits of our roles and responsibilities, as well as opportunities to shift the dynamic for the benefit of community organizations, funders, and the communities we work with.

We examined seven critical junctures in the research process, places where inequities are established and reproduced by institutionalized power dynamics: access, information, validity, ownership, value, accountability, and authorship.

According to Chicago Beyond, these seven sources of inequity are also opportunities for positive, lasting change. With Jayaraman and Nwachukwu’s guidance, we discussed how these aspects show up in our own projects. We talked through the resistance and apprehension we experienced and took ownership of our complicity in maintaining these systems.

Embedded in these seven areas are questions designed to challenge notions of responsibility:

  • Could we be making uninformed decisions because of who or what we allow as valued inputs?
  • Whose ownership is assumed, and whose must be earned?
  • Whose costs and risks matter, whose are invisible?
  • Are we holding the right parties accountable if our approach creates harm or doesn’t work?

These are huge questions, but they demand to be answered, and doing so requires clear commitment to community members.

Community-engaged methods at Urban

Engaging community voices is part of Urban’s vision, as supported by our growing collection of community engaged methods research. By intentionally including community voices in the research process, we can shape research design and data collection tools, and we can contextualize input, findings, and outcomes. What separates other high-quality, rigorous research from community engagement research is the framework for involving communities.

Community-based participatory research (CBPR), the most rigorous form of community engagement, involves community input at every stage of the process to strengthen the validity of research. For example, we used a CBPR approach to form authentic, equitable relationships with our partners at Benning Terrace in the development and evaluation of the Promoting Adolescent Sexual Health and Safety program. In response to the pandemic, instead of compromising partner relationships because of challenging circumstances, we found ways to continue serving as thoughtful collaborators.

The Teen Food pilot program in Portland, Oregon, involved local teens in mitigating the effects of food inequity and insecurity and the stigma accompanying these issues. Community members were involved in all stages of decisionmaking, from program design to implementation. Through incorporating community feedback, Urban was able to build an effective, evidence-based research project to address food insecurity.

Data Walks—a community-focused, accessible data-sharing approach—allows researchers to collaborate and trade insights on data with community members and stakeholders during the research process, allowing everyone involved to analyze, discuss, and form their own conclusions. The result is a bridge between researchers and communities that establishes the trust necessary to drive programming and policy decisions.

And during the recent Foundations for the Future of Housing conference, Urban participated in a human-centered design challenge, giving attendees—a mix of housing providers and their partners—an intensive training on how to improve outcomes by integrating community members’ input. Using design thinking, a creative approach to problem solving that emphasizes improving the end user’s experience, participants shifted from top-down program design to one focused on resident experience.

As a part of our Next50 initiative, Urban is renewing its promise to elevate community voices by including community members in designing inquiries, collecting data, contextualizing results, and making findings accessible.

Committing to a transformative approach to equity now

Our world has been disrupted in a big way this year. From the pandemic and its effects—the extent of which we still can’t predict—and the killing of Black Americans at the hands of police, how can research show up in this moment? Turning an eye on our own organization has revealed we are not exempt from the conversation, and promises—action—are how we can answer.

And the goal of research is improved lives and more equitable policy, how can we ensure our methods uphold those priorities in each moment, from beginning to end? According to Chicago Beyond, the first step is noticing—a simple enough commitment—followed by small changes that accumulate toward a more empowering research practices.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Policy Centers Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population
Research Methods Community Engagement Resource Center
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