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 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
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.