Whether you’re a student, parent, employee, or neighbor, challenge academic institutions to employ community-based research.
When assessing academic “solutions” to problems in oppressed communities, consider: Were those being studied involved in research design, implementation, and analysis? Will they be empowered or further marginalized by the proposals? Were community members already articulating their problems, needs, and desires? Did problems stem from a lack of research or an imbalance of power and resources?
Research about issues hurting marginalized communities has skyrocketed. However, this has not decreased inequality. Extractive research studies marginalized communities without involving or helping them. It runs rampant in American research institutions.
Researchers in the U.S. have long exploited marginalized communities. Colonial doctors experimented on enslaved Africans (JSTOR). Medical researchers used Puerto Rican women as guinea pigs for the first birth control trials, murdering some in the process (History). Some still deny racism by citing Daniel Moynihan, a sociologist, and Harvard professor, who believed the rise of single-mother households fundamentally caused Black poverty (The Atlantic).
Exploitative research extracts knowledge from oppressed communities without providing empowerment and resources. It views marginalized communities as objects to be studied and academics as the ones who establish the truth and decide the right solutions.
Many researchers do not come from or live in the communities they study. A 2011 NIH study revealed that of the principal investigators awarded R01 grant funding for research, 1.2% reported as Black, 3.4% reported as Latino, and less than 0.2% reported as Native (NIH). Only 11% of students from low-income families obtain a bachelor’s degree, so very few researchers come from low-income communities (Ed Trust).
Health studies pinpointing health disparities without focus on solutions is a rising issue. “The inordinate focus on identifying rather than eliminating disparities in health sciences research comes from the top, from what research questions receive NIH [National Institutes of Health] funding and which researchers’ careers are supported,” Dr. Rhea Boyd M.D, a pediatrician and public health advocate, told Anti-Racism Daily.
Aminata Kouyate, a medical student at UCSF, stated, “My professor calls it the Health Disparities Industrial Complex. People are really out here making whole careers reporting on us dying but doing nothing to change that” (Twitter).
Community members are rarely involved in the design or execution of research projects. Many do not see study results because most academic research gets published in journals with subscriptions costing hundreds to thousands of dollars (Vox).
“When researchers do not share the findings with the community who provided the data or samples, they disable the community from making important interventions and from benefitting more generally from the evidence that results from their contributions,” Boyd explained.
Some research focuses on identifying issues that marginalized communities have discussed for years. When the biggest benefit to said communities would be sharing resources and skillsets to find and implement solutions.
In 2019, tech billionaire Marc Benioff donated $30 million to research houselessness (CNN). Houselessness isn’t exactly a new problem. Unhoused communities and advocates have expressed for years that escalating housing prices drive much of the crisis in the Bay Area (48 Hills, Teen Vogue). In 2019, SF had an estimated 8,035 unhoused people and 38,651 empty home units – when the median monthly income for a one-bedroom was $3,690.(CBS Bay Area, SF, SF). That multi-million dollar gift could have housed every SF unhoused person for one year. Engaging with community organizations would have likely shown that the best help would have been to provide a direct housing benefit to the folks sleeping on the streets and in their cars.
San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness produced a report called “Stop the Revolving Door” which offers recommendations on how to address houselnessness. This report was produced using a methodology called Community-Based Participatory Action Research, which means community members – in this case, unhoused people in San Francisco – were involved in every step of the process from designing the survey to working as researchers. They created the most comprehensive report on houselessness ever conducted in the city (Coalition on Homelessness). While working on community-based research, the Coalition organizes alongside unhoused people on community priorities like housing subsidies and limiting police power to actively help fight against houselessness (Coalition on Homelessness).
Why do so many respected institutions still do predatory research? It has rewards. Academics and students build resumes and advance careers. Universities get grants. Charitable foundations can celebrate their “impact.” Rich donors get recognized as generous philanthropists. Everyone wins – except the folks from disadvantaged communities that remain afflicted.
Research can only help uplift disempowered people if researchers include community members as active subjects and engage them from a place of genuine respect and concern. Community-based research has to become the standard.
“Rather than a one-way process where researchers take data and stories out of the community to serve their own career interests, researchers should partner with communities to ask and answer questions that are of interest and benefit to communities members – remembering to return with the findings so the community can also start to elaborate their own solutions or implement their own interventions, based on the findings,” Boyd added.
Researchers should aim to genuinely want to improve lives, not simply get publications. Academia must grow humility along with its body of work.
A lot of research on high-risk communities is extractive instead of actively helping or uplifting these communities.
Many members of disadvantaged communities are not included in the research design, do not have access to research publications, and often do not get benefits from their participation.
Most researchers do not come from or have strong ties to the marginalized communities they study.
Community-based research models engage community members the most and help to empower their communities instead.