It’s exciting when a professor and his/her students can go into their institution’s community and dig deep into research that reflects or extends conversations in textbooks. It’s not so exciting when the findings from that research aren’t shared with the communities they’re working with or successfully implemented to benefit the very subjects studied.
I want to change that. Not just talking about the research but deliberately being about the work ahead for the community’s sake. To ensure I’m staying on the right dirt road to help Black Belt Region communities advance from community-university engagements, I traveled to Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the top of this year to learn from public health and participatory research expert Dr. Nina Wallerstein.
Wallerstein has dedicated more than 30 years to community-based participatory research and empowerment programs. These programs were created to promote health equity and knowledge democracy — this notion of respecting the people and places of those searching for recognition of their land claims, rights, access to jobs, justice and recovery or retention of their customs. Exactly what I want for marginalized African-American people of the Black Belt. Wallerstein’s community-based participatory research (CBPR) workshop taught me four strategies researchers must adopt in order to make any academic work truly meaningful, transparent and inclusive:

 

RESEARCHERS HAVE TO MAKE COMMUNITY MEMBERS PARTNERS IN ACADEMIC PROJECTS.

Community members need to know exactly what the research is about and how it will impact their everyday lives. This piece is crucial. Researchers have a responsibility to educate the community in detail about research projects and thoroughly explain how the information will be used moving forward. Results from community research could greatly impact local lives, and the hope should be to influence the community for their betterment. After all, a lot of communities go out of their way committing hours and sometimes their expertise to ensure they’re helpful to research. Making community members partners in the project creates a deeper understanding about the subject matter and can help stimulate greater change over time.

RESEARCHERS HAVE TO APPROACH THE PROJECT WTIH OPEN MINDS, NOT BIAS.

Biased researchers produce biased work. So when lawmakers see prejudiced findings, they often make ineffective policies based on that research — research disconnected from the people it’s actually supposed to benefit. The quantitative research approaches from the past just don’t cut it anymore. Researchers must ask about the community’s problems, consult on proposed solutions, and discuss in depth how it would directly advance the people of that area. As mentioned early, making the community part of the research team may even prolong the process a few years, but the lasting effects are worth it.

RESEARCHERS HAVE TO BECOME WILLING TO LEARN ABOUT AND LISTEN TO THE COMMUNITIES THEY’RE STUDYING.

Free black labor has been the fuel for economic development in the Black Belt Region since slavery. It’s a long, gruesome history that you can’t overlook or condense into a snapshot. You have to take into account all the issues that came with it before trying to pioneer new research. Wallerstein made a great point during a previous conference: “If something works for the white population in Chicago, it can’t just come to a rural Latino population in Yakama Valley. It has to be adapted and re-centered in the culture and community that’s here.” In order to become an effective change agent in the Black Belt Region, I have spent two decades now talking to rural residents and hearing them out about their roadblocks to advance economically. I also hold listening sessions with rural community members across the Southern states to gain a better understanding of their collective concerns.

RESEARCHERS HAVE TO MAKE IT THEIR DUTY TO SHARE THEIR FINDINGS AND AID IN IMPLEMENTATION.

CBPR is a time-consuming process. However, researchers like Wallerstein have made up their minds to carve out as much time needed to build close community relationships. Taking this approach yields the best results. And when you’re fully committed to your community and research, funding could follow to help alleviate the hard, extensive work. For instance, my Black Belt Region has support from federal agencies, national nonprofits and a working group of experts at the United Nations because I’ve dedicated years of research to a generational problem. And I won’t stop sharing rural, black communities’ survival struggles. However, my research isn’t just uncovering the historical lack of resources and liberties for African-Americans in the Black Belt Region. I’ve taken my work a step further to open new digital doors for underdeveloped Southern communities. I’ve developed a digital platform called blackfarmersnetwork.com to help rural black families and communities share their products, services and ideas with our now online, global economy. This way, rural residents who have limited access to 21st-century technology have a direct link to today’s cyber world and job market.