Building a New Table for Community Research
By Brittany Lewis | April 26, 2023
Minnesota recently made history with its creation of the Task Force for Missing and Murdered Black Women and Girls. But the MMAAW Task Force is important for another reason: providing a model of a different way to do community research in the public interest. My firm, Research In Action (RIA) coordinated and executed the research for the statewide report. RIA brought its Equity in Action Model to the task force, a model where the communities that have been most harmed by past decision-making and systemic inequalities guide and lead the community research process. The Equity in Action model seeks to mobilize authentic, empowered community engagement, from naming the problem to identifying solutions.
Building a New Table: Power Sharing in Community Research
Often when the state contracts for research or forms a task force, community engagement is minimal. Sometimes community members are only “invited to the table” for input at the end of the process, long after most of the decisions have been made.
Authentically centering the voices, experience, and expertise of Black women and girls who have been harmed by both individual and systemic violence requires building an entirely new table, co-designed by community members.
The EIA model emerged from over 15 years of deep collaboration with community members. I and my partners co-developed this framework, which emphasizes community-based knowledge and assets, accountability, and redistribution of power. Three elements of this model demonstrate the difference we were able to make within the MMAAW Task Force.
Creating the Advisory Council
When state officials approached RIA, we made it clear that we could not be involved unless RIA could design a process in which community members would lead. At the outset, a majority of the Task Force members were appointed for their professional expertise or years of service supporting impacted populations, leaving few seats for Black women with lived experience. Community members did not outnumber institutional stakeholders.
The composition of the Task Force did not align with RIA’s value of reclaiming the power of research for the community. Excluding those closest to the problem does not align with key principles of Black feminist research ethics, which validates concrete, practical knowledge and community participation in the construction of research.
We insisted on forming an Advisory Council of Black and women and girls with lived experience to lead the Task Force. RIA utilized the Equity in Action model to design strategic Task Force and Advisory Council activities to maximize participation, partnership development, shared learning, and impact. In discussions, the Advisory Council contextualized the problem of MMAAW and gaps in our collective understandings of the response in our state. This context was integral to the framing and design of our data collection plan.
Data Collection and Shared Meaning Making
An ongoing part of the EIA model is shared meaning making. We create space for everyone at the table to develop shared language to describe the context and define the problem. This ensures all collaborators recognize the specific gaps our research seeks to fill and the goals of the project.
Early in the process, some task force and council members questioned the need for another report. Many in the community were frustrated by the fact that there was already research about violence against Black women and plenty of statistics about the disparities. RIA directly addressed this pain point through a discussion centered on the question: Why are we focusing on research that many already know or have done/experienced themselves rather than focusing on implementation? Some members of the group were struggling to see how the process would make a difference, given the lack of effective state action in the past. To ensure buy-in, we had to give space for this tough dialogue.
As one Task Force member put it, “Research has been used as a weapon in Black and brown communities. One of the opportunities before us today is to turn this research model on its head and work with participatory community research… Not [just] focused on the data that’s already there but helping the community determine what we are focusing on.”
These conversations took more time than allowed in conventional community engagement methods, but they were necessary. In the spirit of sharing power, we needed to explore why past efforts had been inadequate to protect Black women and girls from violence. From this shared understanding of the larger context, we could co-generate a research design that did not replicate past failed efforts.
We took time to establish a shared language so that everyone at the table was clear about what we meant by violence and other core concepts that informed the research questions. Discussions with the Advisory Council revealed intricacies of violence beyond physical harm. We arrived at the following definition of violence:
“Violence” goes beyond the physical aspect of violence; adverse conditions inflict harm on individuals and groups. Economic, social, and psychological violence undermine wellbeing and reduce access to resources that help people recover from physically violent incidents. This broader definition of violence also illuminates the importance of acknowledging the roles that systems play in generating disparities in violence and healing.
This conceptualization of violence meant we could not limit our study to issues around the investigation and reporting of individual incidents of violence. Rather, we had to develop questions that touched on Black women’s experiences within a variety of systems, such as education, health care, and housing.
Our interviews and focus groups were guided by two primary questions:
● Which institutions track and dehumanize Black women and girls and make them more susceptible to violence?
● What needs to change to ensure Black women and girls are treated with dignity and respect?
We interviewed 35 people, including 20 key informants and 15 Black women and girls with lived experience. Key informants were professionals in systems who possess specialized knowledge, such as domestic and sexual violence service providers and experts in housing, education, and child welfare systems.
Black women and girls with lived experience were recruited through partnerships we developed with community partners throughout the state. These interviewees had experienced violence by someone or by systems that were supposed to support them.
Community Review and Action Planning
The AC and Task Force members met consistently throughout the process to assess all the products generated by RIA researchers. We allowed ample time for Advisory Council and Task Force members to discuss the data and early drafts and co-create the final recommendations.
In the final joint session of the Task Force and Council, RIA staff facilitated small group discussions to create the final policy recommendations. We discussed the recommendations that emerged from the data analysis and crafted new recommendations based on the feedback.
Our framing of the research questions and emphasis on the perspectives of those with lived experience impacted our policy recommendations. Our six recommendations are focused on interrupting systems of violence prior to and beyond interactions with law enforcement. It would have been easy to call for increased prosecutions, punishing individuals, or top-down funneling of resources to law enforcement. But that would not have effectively addressed the problem of violence against Black women and girls.
The Advisory Council and Task Force shared a vision of new initiatives created and led by Black women and girls and transforming current institutions into places where Black women and girls can go for help without expecting more harm.
By centering the voices and experiences of Black women and girls who are closest to the problem of violence, we demonstrate the potential of concepts from Black feminist theory not just to describe a problem, but also to generate research and engagements with communities that bear more fruitful solutions to those problems.
Dr. Brittany Lewis is the Founder and CEO at Research in Action, a ground-breaking social benefit corporation established in 2018 to reclaim the power of research by centering community expertise.