Shades of Change - Everyday Democracy's blog

Why it is important to care how research is created.

Harrison Bushnell
August 13, 2021

Everyday Democracy Summer Intern Harrison Bushnell, a college junior from Vermont, sat in on Community Engaged Research training sessions this summer. Here he offers his observations on the value of this community process.  

Community Engaged Research: “When they pull out, we’ll still be here”

In the opening minutes of my first Community Engaged Research training session I was, I’ll admit it, a little bored. Community members were learning interviewing skills. The first couple of powerpoint slides came across my screen and my eyes slid over to check Instagram, because after all, if my generation has learned anything during the pandemic, it’s that Zoom offers the ability to appear alert while egregiously multitasking. 

But slowly I began to notice little things. The community members were actively taking notes. They asked questions that went beyond the obvious, questions that pointed to a deep belief in this process and a long-term goal of changing their community for the better. I slowly realized that these seemingly straightforward slides were in fact tools in a toolkit that would truly shift power dynamics. And most importantly, this type of research and change-making is sustainable. 

Everyday Democracy, with MacArthur Foundation funding through the Safety and Justice Challenge initiative, is working to implement Community Engaged Research (CEnR) in Charleston, South Carolina. The research question is still in the works, but the topic will be centered on racial/ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system.

Community Engaged Research is a process where an organization, often a non-profit or an academic institution, trains and partners with community members to design a research question and process, conduct research, and analyze and share those findings in the community with an aim of raising awareness and inspiring action.

Everyday Democracy maintains that this process could be the next gold standard for equitable research. Joyce Wong, a Research and Learning Associate at Everyday Democracy argues that this process gives people “actual power to address situations that are affecting their communities.” In other research processes, the researchers are largely outsiders, not necessarily invested in or connected to the local community. Geraldine Minter, one of three CEnR community researchers, put it this way: “When they pull out, we’ll still be here.” 

Everyday Democracy doesn’t have the resources to conduct years of research across America. But individuals across America do. And perhaps more importantly, they have the connections and the local knowledge to make an impact. That is the heart of Community Engaged Research. Not only is it more equitable and more empowering, but it also allows for long-lasting, grassroots change. 

Minter and the other community members have just completed the five-week training portion and are currently preparing to conduct research. When I asked Minter whether she was nervous about the prospect of going out and engaging with the community, she smiled and said, “See, that’s the part I love.” It became clear that for Minter, community engagement and actively discussing the criminal justice system were what made her come alive. She said she’s extremely grateful for the expertise of Everyday Democracy in both allowing for her passion to be channeled into this change process and for offering a diverging perspective when the local perspective can become blinded to the bigger picture. 

Wong feels that Community Engaged Research takes Everyday Democracy principles of equity and inclusion that are present in the Dialogue-to-Action process, and brings them to the research sphere. The process challenges the notion that research should only be conducted by academics. Wong feels that we need to be able to affirmatively answer the question, “Does the research actually benefit the people who participate in the research?” And she thinks Community Engaged Research does just that; “This is research for the people.” 

In talking with Minter, I was inspired by her outlook on this moment. She argued that like the Civil Rights Era, this is a moment for change. As Minter put it, the Proud Boys and social justice activists both want to make change; “The problem is what change will win.” Minter argued that “we have to show the problem” through on-the-ground research and community-building. She feels that in this moment in particular, we need to combine the passion of community members like herself and experts in research and community-building like Everyday Democracy. “This is not the day of Dr. King...this is the day of people throwing stats at you.” Minter feels that in this moment, at the nexus of passion and research, lies great possibility. 

When I asked Minter why she’d signed up to participate in Community Engaged Research, she had a few responses. She has seen inequities in the criminal justice system for as long as she can remember. From growing up with a Black father on the police force to working today at the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Charleston, South Carolina, Minter has seen the power of institutional racism. She feels that it’s time that we recognize the pervasive and untreated mental health realities in our criminal justice system and that we recognize the societal damage of treating addiction as a crime rather than a disease. But at the end of the day, Minter says there’s one primary reason she signed up for this research process. “The main thing is that I want to make a difference. I really, really do.” 

The truth is that Community Engaged Research isn’t flashy. But I’d argue it’s one of the only equitable ways to do this much-needed research. Too often we assume that the quickest, easiest way is the best way. The truth is that research practices may be universal, but research findings are local. No matter how globalized our world becomes, local connection and community matter. Community Engaged Research gives power to individuals who know their communities better than anyone else.

Dialogue to Change

Our ultimate goal is to create positive community change that includes everyone, and our tools, advice, and resources foster that kind of change. Whether you’re grappling with a divisive community issue, or simply want to include residents’ voices in city government, Everyday Democracy's Dialogue to Change process, using a racial equity lens, can help.