BARI and URBAN.Boston Ask the Question, “How Can Researchers Engage Communities for Social Change?”

Last Wednesday, BARI, in conjunction with URBAN.Boston, hosted an event at Codman Square Health Center asking the question, “How can urban researchers engage communities for social change?”

The evening was structured to foster conversation between researchers and community members and organizations. The night began with brief presentations by five graduate students from local universities who had received research seed grants from BARI. They then discussed the nature of research in local communities and responded to audience questions on a panel moderated by BARI Co-Director Dan O’Brien. The night concluded with a breakout session that further explored these themes, led by URBAN.Boston Co-Director Michael Johnson, faculty at UMass Boston’s McCormack Graduate School.

The featured graduate students included Caitlin Carey & Marija Bingulac, PhD candidates in Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston; Andrew Trlica, a PhD student in Boston University’s Department of Earth and Environment; Liana Tuller, a PhD candidate in Northeastern University’s Department of Sociology; and Sandeep Jani, a PhD student in the Department of Public Policy and Public Affairs at UMass Boston’s McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies.

During the panel, the researchers shared their views on the various tools and methodologies researchers can employ to engage the community throughout the research process. Caitlin Carey and Marija Bingulac, two of the featured researchers who are working to analyze coverage gaps in the Massachusetts public assistance system with the On Solid Ground Coalition, discussed their use of Participatory Action Research, an approach that emphasizes collaboration, reflection, and action. Relationship-building between researchers and the community is key, and this was something all the researchers agreed upon.

Andrew Trlica was able to speak to a different research perspective given his role in the Earth and Environment Department at BU. His work examines the relationship between increasing temperatures and the built environment in Boston, seeking to better understand the Urban Heat Island effect. While he hopes that his results can be used for the public good, the nature of his research is not inherently community-oriented. He pointed out that the traditional research structure discourages involving community groups and wondered out loud, is there a way to change that?

During the breakout groups, four questions were posed:
• How can researchers help community groups use data effectively?
• What should researchers avoid when partnering with communities?
• What community data would you like to collect?
• What projects would you like to work on?

In response to the first question, one group pointed out the importance for researchers to think about what their work leaves behind—without capacity building for the community partner, what do they get out of the project once the researchers leave? Is the data they helped generate still accessible to them?

To the third question, one group had a creative idea: researcher/community group “speed dating”. What if you put researchers looking for a project and community groups with research needs in a room together with the intention of finding a good match? The relationship would begin at the very beginning of the research process, creating a mutually beneficial precendence of collaboration.

“In recent years we have seen a lot of excitement around the potential for data-driven city-university partnerships,” noted Dan O’Brien. “As valuable as this work has been, it has largely lost sight of the role community organizations and members might play in these conversations—how do they help drive the research agenda? How do they benefit from these new data resources? As we advance our ability to understand and serve the city, how do we align it with public needs?”

A big thank you to all of the researchers who participated: Caitlin Carey & Marija Bingulac, Sandeep Jani, Liana Tuller, and Andrew Trlica.

For more information about the work that was featured in last night’s event, click here.

Published On: February 13, 2017 |
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