Letting the Community Lead

How we use the practice of participatory action research to source the best solutions, directly from the community

When we’re considering a government challenge—say, a skills training program isn’t attracting enough signups, or people don’t know about a new transit benefit—we know that the best solution will require input at every step of the way from the people who are most affected. There’s a lot of ways to source community feedback, and local governments may wonder how to gather that information in a way that’s inclusive and effective. They may also wonder how we can empower those closest to the problem to contribute to the eventual solution. That’s where participatory research comes in.

In our work with the city and county governments of Memphis, Tennessee, we’ve been experimenting with a Participatory Action Research (PAR) framework for sourcing community ideas on a specific challenge. In Memphis and surrounding Shelby County, there’s a high rate of disconnection amongst youth—meaning a large number of young adults aren’t working or in school. The county has been trying diligently to reach these “opportunity youth,” but the percentage of 16 to 24-year-olds who fall into this category has remained unchanged—at 19%—for more than three decades. 

Now, with a PAR framework, the county is engaging these youth in collaboratively addressing this challenge. The pilot has assembled a team of young adults from the community to research the experiences of disconnected youth and recommend approaches the county can take to reach them. Their work so far provides much for other local governments around the country to learn from.

But first… what is Participatory Action Research?

Participatory Action Research is a framework for involving communities in research and design projects that directly influence their lives. It’s this simple: when you’re wondering about the experience of a community, hire and train members of that community to go out and conduct the research for themselves. At the core of all PAR approaches is the understanding that people with direct lived experience with challenges are often the best positioned to ask critical questions about the topics that impact their communities. During PAR projects, people from all walks of life—from community members to government stakeholders to classically trained researchers—come together to collaboratively study a common challenge and make actionable recommendations to address it. PAR has been used to explore a wide range of community challenges around the world, including equitable school redistricting, improving social services, housing, and violence prevention.

Our approach with Shelby County is specifically a YPAR—where the Y stands for Youth—project, since it employs young adults to do research with other young adults. 

Why YPAR was right for Shelby County

Systemic racism and other structural challenges have left many of the young adults in Shelby County disconnected from opportunities. Opportunity youth may be dealing with childcare responsibilities, lack of transportation, criminal records, lack of access to entry level jobs, low wages, and mental health issues. All this pushes them further into the margins—and the county has identified a few key reasons why young adults stay disconnected, even after outreach attempts to help them take their next steps: they haven’t had exposure to career paths that feel accessible and worthwhile, they’ve often had negative experiences accessing services in the past, and the programs and services they have interacted with didn’t account for the challenges specific to their group.

The goal of a YPAR project then was not only to understand how the government could better provide opportunities for this group, but also to empower people from that same group to become advocates for their own solutions. Because they’re a part of the community they’re researching, they could ask questions and reach people that traditional researchers could not.

Early on in the project one of our researchers made the comment: ‘Matt, you’re a nice guy and all, but there’s no way you’re going to South Memphis and going to be able to talk to the right people. But I’m from there and I can do that.’ He was right. And that’s the value of working with community researchers. 
Matt Bernius

Talking with someone who looks like you, comes from your neighborhood, and has a similar background is far easier than with an outsider. In addition to all of that, community researchers bring a knowledge of history and local context that outside researchers can’t match. All the new community knowledge they’re gathering is staying within the community, a huge difference from a more traditional research model where researchers come in and conduct the research, write a report, and then leave—taking most of the data with them. In a YPAR context, the researchers stay and advocate for changes.

We interviewed a Memphis program manager and opportunity youth program alumni about their experience working together and connecting with their community. Read more here.

In Memphis, 11 community researchers worked with three community-based organizations—RESPECT the Haven CDC, Beyond Educating Foundation, and The Collective Blueprint—in neighborhood-specific teams. Over five months, they interviewed more than 150 community members in person, through one-on-one conversations and focus groups, and connected with another 250 community members virtually. The researchers then presented their findings and recommendations to county government and the broader community. Some of those findings and recommendations include:

  • Opportunity youth rarely, if ever, become disconnected through a single action or event. Instead, many direct and indirect intersectional challenges slowly disconnect them over time. Repeatedly experiencing rejection makes Opportunity youth reluctant to reach out and ask for help.

  • The instability of Opportunity youth’s lives and the environments they live in often disrupt attempts to reconnect.

  • The researchers recommended that Shelby County and the City of Memphis create a Young Adult Reconnection Council. The council would bring together government, businesses, nonprofit organizations, community leaders, and young adults from the community to collectively address challenges that are disconnecting young adults.

How other governments can adopt the PAR framework

Not only can other governments use the PAR framework—they absolutely should! PAR represents so many of the critical elements of building a human-centered government. It puts people with lived experience first, empowers those same people for action to manage their own communities, and informs government with evidence they might not have obtained otherwise. All this can lead to the design of more equitable systems.

There’s a few things that are helpful to keep in mind when considering a PAR project:

  • There is no such thing as a “perfect” PAR project. We talked about this work as being like improvisational jazz. It’s deeply collaborative and requires a commitment to sharing ownership over the research approach and outcomes. There were moments where we were able to get things done more quickly than expected and other times where we needed to slow down to make sure everyone in our research community had a clear understanding of what we were doing.

  • Set reasonable expectations, and do this collaboratively. Government partners employing community researchers must be transparent regarding the limitations of their project. It’s important that researchers be set up for success, otherwise the research may seem performative and disempowering. There needs to be clarity on the goal of the research from government’s perspective; this could and should be co-designed with the research team.

  • Strong project management is critical. With many stakeholders and moving parts, there needs to be a strong backbone of structure. There needs to be alignment on goals, expectations, and outcomes, especially as these things shift throughout the project. This means setting timelines on a shared calendar, frequent meetings and check-ins, agreed-upon accountability mechanisms, and regular retrospectives at critical junctures in the process to identify successes and address issues.

  • Remember: community researchers  are probably struggling with the same challenges they’re investigating. Whereas traditional researchers get some separation from the work, community researchers are in their communities 24/7. It’s important that the team is supportive—this might mean offering transportation support and childcare for critical meetings, doing after hours check-ins to accommodate schedules, and paying researchers via their preferred means.

Whether designing a product from scratch or improving existing services, PAR enables government to get to the root of issues more quickly, with likely more honest feedback from intended users. By leveraging this research method, governments can design solutions that better serve residents and support their economic mobility.

Want to learn more about our YPAR project? Check out the researchers’ report prepared for Shelby County.

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