Urban Wire What happens when communities develop their own programs and policies?
Reed Jordan, Elsa Falkenburger
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This post is part of a series on community-based research in Washington, DC.

What does it look like when the communities and people we as researchers typically study and observe are instead put in the driver’s seat? A community-based organization uses the data from the research as the basis for a meeting to discuss policy with the mayor’s office. A public housing resident transitions from a silent observer at meetings to a community leader, facilitating discussions and leading research efforts. Researchers take a back seat and see there is valuable information that surfaces as a result of their silence.

Over the past three years, Urban has partnered with the DC Housing Authority, residents from the Benning Terrace development, local service providers, and public health experts from the University of California at San Diego to develop and test the Promoting Adolescent Sexual Health and Safety (PASS) project. PASS, which is being piloted in DC, is a community-based program that educates and trains youth and adults in sexual health and safety. The goal is to develop a program model that will provide a safe, culturally appropriate environment for adolescents and their care takers to learn about sexual health, access health services, and challenge norms and behaviors around sex and relationships.

PASS represents a relatively new frontier for Urban. We have tried-and-true methods for evaluating programs like PASS and making policy recommendations based on those evaluations. Regression analyses, pre- and post-tests, focus groups, and structured interviews are all important tools in the program evaluation tool belt. Increasingly, however, researchers at Urban are using other methods, dramatically increasing the role of communities in shaping the services they receive, interpreting research findings, and creating solutions.

Community-based participatory research (CBPR), the kind of work being done with PASS, is a research method that provides concrete and immediate benefits to communities and can strengthen the quality of research.

CBPR directly confronts some of the principal equity and implementation challenges related to traditional research and programs. Typically, the problems and solutions to be tackled by researchers are defined outside of communities by professionals who don’t know as much about the context and are neither fully accountable nor directly affected by the decisions they recommend. Additionally, the knowledge and expertise that come from evaluation and implementation of the programs or policies do not remain with the community in the long term. CBPR addresses these problems in several ways:  

  1. A community-based approach introduces a stronger accountability process and balance of power among communities, researchers, and service providers. Whereas researchers usually make asks of a community’s time in traditional evaluation methods—“please participate in a focus group” or “agree to be surveyed”—in CBPR, communities make asks of the researchers and help define the direction of the programming and evaluation. One example: as part of PASS, we hosted a data walk, where the community analyzed data with the research team. The discussions that resulted shifted the focus of the project from youth-only to adolescents and their parents, as sexual health and safety is something that needs to be reinforced at home and the data showed inconsistencies between adults and youth in their sexual health communication and knowledge. When communities have a stake in developing their own programs and policies, as in this instance, and in evaluating their process and outcomes, community leadership is more invested and better equipped with the skills to address the community’s needs themselves. The result is a more equitable relationship among stakeholders and also a more relevant and targeted response to the community’s needs.
  2. A community-based approach also improves the quality and sustainability of the program or policy. Throughout the course of PASS, Benning Terrace residents heavily refined the evidence-informed programs that we presented them, adapted the curriculum to their community context, and incorporated components to increase the program’s effectiveness and sustainability. In response to the community’s frustrations with the fleeting nature of many programs and services in their neighborhood, the PASS team trained adults from the community as co-facilitators. The experience was more relevant and engaging for the youth and ensured the content would be embedded in the community leaders, rather than leaving at the end of the day or when program funding has ended.
  3. Finally, a community-based approach improves the research. From defining research questions to collection and analysis of data or capturing the details of community context that can make or break a program intended for replication, the research findings from PASS are more robust, valuable, and applicable as a direct result of our partnership with the Benning Terrace community.

With PASS, we put the community in the driver’s seat—and both the community and our research benefited. Because we built trust with the community, we were able to incorporate them into the research process. Because they were invested in the research, we received better data. Because we had better data, we co-designed a better program and stronger policy recommendations. And because the data collected from surveys, interviews, and observations belong to the community and the researchers jointly, the impact and reach of our work is amplified.

Further insights into how a community-based approach has strengthened Urban’s research will be presented in upcoming posts by the PASS team.


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Research Areas Neighborhoods, cities, and metros Children and youth Families Social safety net Race and equity Greater DC
Tags Neighborhoods and youth development
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
Research Methods Community Engagement Resource Center
Cities Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV
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