Surina Khan, vice president of programs at the Women’s Foundation of California was recently invited to speak about the role of research in advancing social change. In this excerpt, she gives two examples of community-led research that made a difference.
As a grantmaker that funds research, in addition to funding other strategies like policy advocacy, organizing, communications, civic engagement and leadership development, I often hear community leaders talk about researchers who come into a community, conduct research that may or may not be useful to the community and then leave without doing any follow-up.
In these cases, Participatory Action Research is a useful method in which researchers and those they study enter into a partnership to identify the best way to study a problem and make sure that the results of the research make a difference to those who were studied.
Community-led research is another useful strategy. I want to offer two examples of community led research that led to significant victories.
- In one case, a group of youth organizers from Environmental Health Coalition in San Diego were concerned about the levels of pollution in their communities. They formed a partnership with the University of Southern California which loaned them equipment that allowed them to measure particulate matter in the air. The young organizers designed a project where they measured the air quality at the same exact time in two locations: the community where they lived, played and attended school, near a truck route; and outside of City Hall where decisions affecting them are made about land use and transportation routes. The data collected clearly showed that air pollution in their community was much worse than near City Hall where decisions affecting their community are made. The young organizers used the data to testify in front of the City Council members. Ultimately, the organizers convinced Council members to place greater regulations on trucks which were idling near the school and emitting diesel fumes and other toxins.
- In another example, youth organizers involved with Community Coalition, an organization based in South Central Los Angeles, where many families live in deep conditions of poverty, were concerned about the substandard conditions of their schools. So they began to look at how resources from the state budget were allocated in Los Angeles County. They discovered that a large percentage of the money coming into LA County for public schools was disproportionately allocated to Beverly Hills where the schools were in generally good condition. In fact, funds were being allocated to repair cracks in the school’s swimming pools. So the kids purchased several disposable cameras and started taking pictures of their schools. They collected images of backed-up toilets, cracked walls, broken chairs, and windowless classrooms. One school had only one working toilet for hundreds of students. They used disposable cameras because they knew they might get confiscated and if the disposable cameras were confiscated it was less of a financial loss than if more expensive cameras were confiscated. They took the photos, blew them up and took them to a budget hearing where they asked for a greater allocation of resources to be directed to schools that needed serious infrastructure repair. And they won.
As funders, we must ask ourselves how we can find innovative ways to support research and social documentation projects that can shift resources to where they are most needed while educating the public. These and other research projects generate content which can be tweeted, posted on Facebook and Flickr reaching hundreds, thousands, and millions of people, thereby creating greater potential for shifting hearts and minds, and cultural practices.