Opinion-Policy Nexus

Over the last decade or so, community-based participatory research has become a more prominent feature in the discipline. This fact is especially true in the area of Indigenous studies, where research partnerships with Indigenous communities have become almost the norm. Although I certainly appreciate and respect the idea of community-based research, I’ve also tended not to use it mainly because I’m uncertain about the tradeoffs involved. Luckily, I am visiting professor with the department of political science at the University of Guelph this term and just down the hall from my office is Dr. Leah Levac, assistant professor of political science at UofG. Her research, which has been supported by the Trudeau Foundation, the CIHR, and more recently, SSHRC, looks at how government and civil society actors engage “marginalized publics in public policy development and community decision-making”. In particular, she uses community-engaged research methodologies and approaches to study the participation of women and youth in Canada. The following is a conversation I had with her regarding her work and in particular, how she uses community-based research to work with marginalized populations and individuals in the pursuit of common research goals.

Alcantara: What is community-based research?

Levac: Community-based research is one of several methodological orientations to research that have, at their core, a commitment to social justice and equity, and to working directly with people in communities to address research questions that are important and relevant to their lives. Participatory action research, feminist participatory action research, community-based participatory research, and action research are other names used by community and academic researchers who uphold similar commitments to working with communities to bring about social change. Community-based research is committed to the principles of community relevance, equitable participation, and action and change (Ochocka & Janzen, 2014). Emerging from different contexts and histories, forms of community-based research have developed and been practiced in both the Global North and the Global South. In all cases, community-based research pursues the co-production and dissemination of knowledge, through both its process and its outcomes.

Alcantara: How do you use these methodologies in your work?

Levac: Over the last several years, I have been working with various community partners and academic colleagues to develop and use a feminist intersectional approach to community engaged scholarship (Levac, Stienstra, McCuaig, & Beals, forthcoming; Levac & Denis, 2014). The idea is that we use the principles of community-based research combined with a commitment to feminist intersectionality; a self-reflexive theoretical and methodological orientation to research that recognizes gender as a dimension of inequality, and understands that power exists and operates through the interactions between individual or group identities (e.g., gender, ability, age), systems (e.g., sexism, heterosexism, colonialism), institutions (e.g., governments, schools, family), and social structures (e.g. social class, economic structures, societies). We draw on the work of Collins, Dhamoon, Hankivsky, and others to inform our work. Practically, we apply this methodological orientation by engaging with (primarily) women in communities, along with academic colleagues across disciplines, to develop partnerships that lead to asking and answering research questions that are pressing for our community partners. Based on this commitment to developing shared research goals, we use one or several methods (e.g., community workshops, interviews, focus groups, surveys, photovoice) depending on the question(s) being asked. For example, I collected data through community workshops and focus groups, and then analyzed the data with members of the community, as part of the process for creating a Community Vitality Index in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador. In another case, I used key informant interviews and community focus groups to identify the key challenges facing women in Labrador West. The result, Keeping All Women in Mind, is part of a national community engaged research project focused on the impacts of economic restructuring on women in northern Canada.

Alcantara: Why have you decided to make this methodology central to your work? What advantages does it bring to your research and to your partners?

Levac: My commitment to community engaged scholarship emerged in part from my personal and professional experiences. I returned to school to pursue graduate studies after working with community organizations and community members – young people in particular – where I witnessed disconnects between researchers’ goals and community’s experiences, and where I learned more about the lack of equitable public participation in policy development. As I continue along this path, I am motivated by the ways in which this methodological orientation invites the voices of historically marginalized community members into important public conversations. I also appreciate that the approach brings ecological validity. Through our work, we see important instances of leadership emerging, especially in places and ways that the conventional leadership literature largely fails to recognize. Finally, the theoretical grounding of our work points explicitly to social justice and equity goals, which I feel obligated to pursue from my position.

Alcantara: One of the concerns I have long had about this methodology is the potential loss of autonomy for the researcher. Is that a real danger in your experience?

Levac: I think about this in two different ways. On one hand, I do not think it is a danger that is unique to community engaged scholarship. As I understand it, the core concern with autonomy in community engaged scholarship is about how the relationships themselves might influence the findings. However, the lack of relationships can also influence findings (e.g., if there is a lack of appropriate contextual understanding), as can funding arrangements, and so on. What is important then, is to foreground the relationships, along with other important principles such as self-reflexivity and positionality, so that the rigor of the scholarship can be evaluated. Another way to think about this is to consider that within a community engaged scholarship program, there can be multiple research questions under pursuit; some of which are explicitly posed by, and of interest to, the community, and others that are posed by the academic researcher(s). As long as all of these questions are clearly articulated and acceptable to all partners, then independent and collective research pursuits can co-exist. Having said this, I do find that I have had to become less fixated on my own research agenda per se, and more open to projects that are presented to me.

Alcantara: How do you approach divided communities? Here I’m thinking about situations such as working with Indigenous women on issues relating to gender and violence, identity, or matrimonial property rights. How do you navigate these types of situations, where some community members might welcome you while others might oppose you?

Levac: These are obviously difficult situations, and I certainly do not claim to have all of the answers, particularly in Indigenous communities, where I have not spent extensive time. Having said that, there are a couple of important things to keep in mind. First, the ethical protocols and principles of community engaged scholarship demand attention to the question of how communities are constituted. So, for example, an interest-based community and a geographic community are not necessarily coincidental. As a result, a community engaged scholarship project would be interested in how the community defines itself, and therefore might end up working only with people who identify themselves as victims of gendered violence, for example. Second, because relationships are central to all stages of community-based research projects, these methodologies can actually lend themselves to these difficult kinds of contexts. By this, I mean that similar to reconciliation processes, there is an opportunity for community engaged scholarship to play a role in opening dialogues for understanding across social, political, and cultural barriers. This is one of the reasons that community engaged scholarship is widely recognized as being so time intensive.

Alcantara: What kinds of literature and advice would you offer to scholars who want to use this type of methodology in their work for the first time?

Levac: My first and biggest piece of advice is to get involved in the community. All of my research – including and since I completed my PhD – has come about through existing relationships with community organizations and/or other researchers involved in community engaged projects. There are a number of books and authors that can provide a useful grounding, including Reason & Bradbury’s (Eds.) Handbook of Action Research, Minkler & Wallerstein’s Community-Based Participatory Research for Health, and Israel et al.’s Methods for Community-Based Participatory Research for Health. There are also several great peer-reviewed journals – including Action Research and Gateways: International Journal of Community Research and Engagement. Finally, there are many organizations and communities of practice that pursue and support various facets of community engaged scholarship. Guelph hosts the Institute for Community Engaged Scholarship. Other great organizations and centres include Community Based Research Canada, Community Campus Partnerships for Health, and the Highlander Research and Education Centre. Finally, beyond connecting with communities and community organizations, and reading more about the methods and theories of community engaged scholarship, it is really helpful to reach out to scholars using these approaches, who have, in my experience, been more than willing to offer support and suggestions. Feel free to contact me directly at [email protected].