The blog of the Urban Institute
December 1, 2021

How Researchers Can Ensure their Work Is More Equitable, Accurate, and Impactful

Since the Black Lives Matter movement gained widespread support in summer 2020 and COVID-19 disproportionately worsened health and economic outcomes in communities of color, social science research, policy, and programs have accelerated their focus on racial equity and inclusion.

For policy researchers, a critical part of achieving greater racial equity includes examining the research field’s serious wrongdoings, history of exclusion, and power inequities and enacting strategies to include the voices and perspectives of communities most affected by these injustices. Community engaged methods (CEM) offer one way toward these goals.

In 2015, the Urban Institute published a Data Walk guide that shares how researchers can discuss data collaboratively with community members to ensure they are included in the research process, from study planning through data analysis. Its central theme is that making the research process accessible to community members strengthens the research itself.

This approach, though not new or revolutionary, has encouraged researchers, government agencies, private corporations, nonprofits, and others to open up their data-driven decisionmaking processes to the communities most affected by their work. 

We recently published a second set of resources, the “Community Voice and Power Sharing Guidebook,” which builds on the Data Walk guide by giving researchers, practitioners, and policymakers a set of strategies to incorporate participatory methods into their work. The tools in the guidebook include community engaged surveys, community advisory boards (CABs), partnership building, and youth engagement. 

Here are a few ways these strategies have helped Urban produce more equitable, accurate, and impactful work.

  • Facilitating equity. Partnerships that identify and address power dynamics, demonstrate that community voices matter, compensate community members for their time and expertise, and prioritize community needs and goals instill equity in the research process. These partnerships can attempt to give power to historically underinvested in communities by incorporating members into the research team and working together to address some of their needs outside of the research project.   
     
    Urban’s Promoting Adolescent Sexual Health and Safety (PASS) program has fostered partnerships between various community-based organizations (CBOs) and other local DC entities. Government offices and researchers often ask CBOs to help with outreach and recruitment by government offices and researchers—usually without compensation or a longer-term commitment to support the CBOs in their daily mission to serve community residents. 
     
    The PASS project has hired community members onto project teams, compensated the CBOs for their support, asked what their data needs or research priorities include, shared data with residents, and collaborated with them on funding proposals and other in-kind forms of support. 
  • Improving accuracy. By engaging communities in survey design and research, we can improve the accuracy of the data and our findings. Community members contextualize the questions, suggest appropriate terminology and examples, and ensure the survey respects community experience and priorities. This leads to higher response rates and more honesty in survey responses. Additionally, this can allow the community to address topics that are important to them.

    An Urban project on climate resilience and mitigation in New Orleans took this approach by holding community focus groups to understand the best way to design a respectful, accessible, and relevant survey. The focus groups helped researchers ensure the questions included participants’ priorities, used appropriate language, were sensitive to community members’ lived experience, and minimized the recall of traumatic events. 
  • Expanding impact. Community advisory boards comprise people who share an identity, geography, or history and who come together to ensure community priorities and expertise are centered in a project or longer-term initiative. CABs help build trust within communities typically excluded from setting research or policy priorities and ensure a research initiative is sustainable by reflecting community priorities and investing resources in the people and organizations that remain in a community, regardless of funding or project lifecycles.

    For the Casey Foundation–funded East Baltimore Research Project, a CAB created the project’s goals, ensures all activities reflect community priorities, oversees decisionmaking, and works closely with Urban staff to hire and train community researchers who will remain long after Urban’s project funding ends.

At its core, CEM requires researchers to relinquish power to community members so research is more collaborative and inclusive. It is made possible when researchers commit to partnering with communities and share decisionmaking power over processes and outcomes. This process can be new and uncomfortable for researchers who are unfamiliar with it, which makes sharing tools and resources important.

Over the next year, Urban will publish additional CEM tools on institutional review board considerations for participatory methods, fair compensation for community partners, and racial equity through community engagement. These strategies can help researchers nurture a community’s strengths, making policy recommendations more effective and sustainable.


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