COMM-ORG Papers 2003

Blanc et al.: From the Ground Up

| Preface | Summary | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Appendices | Cited Works and Notes | Acknowledgements and About Authors |

Preface: Reflections on a Collaborative Research Project

(Note: This reflective note was written by Sukey Blanc and Joanna Brown.  Sukey is the team leader for the Research for Action (RFA) team that worked with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA).  She has been involved with this project since the winter of 1999.  Joanna Brown is the education organizer at LSNA who coordinated LSNA's participation in the project.)


Sukey:  I first learned about LSNA in the winter of 1999 from a colleague who told me that LSNA, a multi-issue community organization in Chicago, needed a research group to document their work.   She thought that the styles and interests of RFA and LSNA would mesh well together. 

Research for Action has a history of, and a commitment to engaging in collaborative, participatory research.  By collaborative, participatory research, I mean an approach in which professional researchers and the organization or people being studied jointly construct the research questions, identify appropriate research activities, and work together to interpret and present findings. 

During our first phone conversation with LSNA, Nancy Aardema (LSNA’s executive director) and Joanna Brown (the lead education organizer) were clear that the research needed to be a collaborative effort between LSNA and the documenter they selected.  The MacArthur Foundation, which funded the project, wanted the research to meet the needs of the community as well as those of the foundation.   LSNA’s organizational ethos also steered it toward a collaborative approach.

Much has been written about the value of collaboration and participatory research.  Less has been written about the processes involved and the challenges that may arise. I hope that this joint reflection on our process, the benefits for both organizations, and the challenges we encountered will help others who undertake a similar task. 

Special thanks to my friend and co-author, Matthew Goldwasser.  Matthew joined this project in the winter of 2001.  Like me, he is committed to doing collaborative, participatory research.  He is also interested in sharing what we have all learned from this experience and therefore spurred Joanna and me to produce this reflective piece.  Matthew himself has worked very closely with LSNA's housing leaders, shared their fears and their joys, read their writings, and engaged in extensive dialogue with them about earlier drafts of this report. 

Developing a Collaborative Relationship

Sukey: During our first conversation, I found out that Joanna, who was also working on her doctorate, would be playing a central role in the research.  Joanna has been a key liaison for RFA—setting up interviews with people who could help us understand LSNA’s foundations and introducing us to everyone as friends of the organization.  She has also been involved in every aspect of the project, including working on data analysis and writing.

Others at LSNA have also been consistently friendly and welcoming.  It was especially helpful to me that everyone had faith that I could communicate in Spanish, even though my Spanish is far from fluent.  Whenever I was in Logan Square, I found myself switching into Spanish, or a combination of Spanish and English, and that was definitely one of the things that made me feel like part of the LSNA community.  

Benefits of Collaboration

Joanna:  The RFA/LSNA research collaboration was useful to LSNA in a variety of ways.  There were a number of things which we, at LSNA, would probably not have done on our own, but which we did do because of our work with RFA.

First, RFA provided some funding for community-based research which made it possible to re-survey the neighborhood about the community learning centers.  We were already familiar with this kind of community-based research, as parents had surveyed each school's neighborhood before establishing a community center.  But Sukey asked us about what questions we would like to have answered, and encouraged us to do follow-up surveys about the community centers.  The information we gathered from these surveys has helped us to keep our centers fresh and to resist the bureaucratization that creeps in as institutions become routinized.

Second, because RFA staff made it clear that they were interested in using the voices of LSNA leaders in their report, LSNA people were prompted to collaborate in a variety of ways, from befriending and educating Sukey and Matthew about LSNA to writing reports on housing meetings and poems about marches. 

Third, we ended up with some concrete products that can be used both inside and outside the organization.  An outstanding example is the "Real Conditions" booklet written by parent mentors at Mozart School.  RFA paid for the writing workshop and the booklets as part of the process of collecting first-person materials for the report.  The writers have read their work at school potluck dinners and assemblies.  The book has also been used in ESL classes and to help funders and other outsiders understand LSNA's work.

The intermediate products of the research were probably the most useful to the organization – an article that Sukey wrote for our newsletter, the women’s writing project, and the Education Indicators project report on LSNA (a collaboration between RFA and the Cross City Campaign for Urban Education), with its many pictures.  It would be useful to mine long research reports for shorter segments that could help publicize the organization. 

Joanna:  As with any documentation of an organization, this one began at a certain point in LSNA’s history.  RFA's willingness to collaborate with us in thinking through the research enabled the RFA team to learn more about and take into consideration the organization's history and the participants' memories.  By working closely with LSNA, RFA researchers were able to frame the questions and the report in a way that made sense to us.  Because they were open to our perspective and viewed us as colleagues, we were able to help the researchers focus on and adjust the context in which they saw our work, even as they brought a fresh and independent analysis of LSNA's work. 

Sukey:  Each partner brought perspectives which challenged the other’s way of interpreting LSNA and its work. Creating a sense of shared meaning between RFA and LSNA has been a process of dialogue and struggle.   There was always good will and trust, but the researchers often did not see things in the same way that people inside the organization did.  It seems like every time we presented data and our analysis to them, they said, "Well, no.  Here's a different way of looking at it.”  That definitely enriched our understanding.

After we completed our first round of data collection, Joanna visited us in Philadelphia.  Our conversation was pretty intense.  We kept asking questions like whether LSNA was confronting the culture of the schools.  Meanwhile, Joanna was pushing us to have a better understanding of LSNA's approach to relationship-building.  When I think about it, we were dealing at that very first meeting with issues that we've continued to deal with.  We've talked a lot about issues of power and power inequities, even though we didn’t always refer to it that way.

Joanna: We were able to help shape the frame through which RFA examined our work.  Take Sukey's appropriate and challenging question: "Is LSNA confronting the culture of the schools?"  It is not that the question was wrong LSNA needs always to challenge itself on this question but our conversations shifted the framework within which that question was asked.  We were able to bring to this discussion an historical perspective of how far the schools had moved since LSNA began organizing with parents.  When RFA arrived on the scene, LSNA was already far into a process of transformation which had shifted, though not revolutionized, the power relationships within the school and increased the amount of social trust.

Joanna: Because of RFA's commitment to collaborative research, RFA staff insisted on discussing drafts of the report in feedback sessions with a variety of people, from school staff to parents and LSNA housing and education leaders.  This led to interesting and lively discussions about LSNA's work with a diverse group of LSNA leaders and staff who normally would not meet for that purpose.  These sessions gave leaders a chance to reflect on their work and how it may be perceived by a broader intellectual community. Having a written document to react to provided a focus for the relatively abstract discussion.

Challenges of Collaboration

Sukey: One of the things that I've learned is how hard it is to do participatory research.  When I wrote the proposal, I had hoped that the community survey process would lead to community research teams whose questions and findings would intersect with the questions and findings of the outside researchers.  What I found was that it was a lot harder than I had anticipated to combine the work of the two organizations – the research approach of outsiders and the inside voice and knowledge of people in the community. Nevertheless, it remained a disappointment to me that the community survey process couldn’t be integrated into the final report in the way that I had envisioned.  

Joanna: I think the limits to our collaborative research which Sukey refers to had more to do with the time demands on the staff of our organization than anything else.  Everyone is always extremely busy.  I was the point person for the collaborative research, was never freed up from other responsibilities to work on research, and was always overextended.  Since this will usually be the case with community organizing staff, it is often helpful to have research staff develop the research plan and materials (such as survey instruments) and then ask organization members to implement them. 

It is in the nature of community organizing that the practical and immediate demands of our work tend to push aside and overtake the longer-term or more abstract demands.  We are very glad that we now have a final product that tells LSNA’s story, but at any particular moment during the research process, data collection usually seemed less urgent than the next issue or meeting. 

Sukey:  Part of the difficulty of collaborating came from the geographic distance between Chicago and RFA’s home base in Philadelphia.

Joanna: Because of the different time frames that researchers and organizing staff operate under, I would agree with Sukey that it is important to have a local researcher (in addition to someone on staff who is collaborating) to provide structure for the data collection on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis.

Concluding Comments

Sukey: When I think back on the first Congress that I went to, I remember feeling that the event was grounded in people's real lives. It was smaller than the other Congresses I have attended, with about 200 people, and it had an arts emphasis.  It felt to me like people in LSNA were engaged in creating a new kind of community.  When we met with LSNA to give feedback about the early stages of the affordable housing campaign, we had a similar impression.  We could tell that people on the housing committees really cared about each other.  The issues were important, but the caring that they had for each other was at least as important. 

I think that the biggest thing I learned from this project was thinking about how change looks from the inside, from the perspective of people who are creating that change.  Even though I started out with a commitment to collaborative and participatory research, I started out thinking more like a social scientist, assuming that my writing would emphasize the social and economic structures that shape the Logan Square community.   Instead, I found that individuals’ stories and their growing sense of ability to take control of their lives seemed to be the central theme of this work. 

My hope is that foundations will gain some new ideas from this report about how community organizing can function to build community capacity.  Much of what we talk about in the report involves building trust within and across groups, but you can't build trust in poor communities without confronting power inequities.  Capacity building thus involves both creating community and addressing power issues.  

LSNA’s work over time shows us the challenges of combining relationship-building in a diverse community with addressing issues of power.  Nonetheless, it looks to us like LSNA has managed to fulfill both, as we have seen in their work on school reform and affordable housing.  I hope that this report gives others some models of how community organizing can both confront power issues and also create community.

Joanna:  Collaborative research can take many forms, but in general, whether it be writing and research by community members or discussion and debate over research questions and theoretical framework, research can only benefit from collaboration and respect between researchers and subjects.

Sukey and Matthew took collaboration seriously.  And people knew that.  They became part of the LSNA family, free to walk in and out of meetings and events without causing a stir.  They saw things from the “inside” and saw processes, relationships and strategies develop.  I feel that they gave us several years out of their work lives, and thank them for their commitment to telling our story.