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The Value of Building Community Power Through Research

Consider the following quote from our Beloved Community Research Team: 

Research is About Power. And who has the power to say what about whom….research can cause harm if done irresponsibly, by both exacerbating pre-existing as well as creating racial and economic disparities. We understand as well the potential for responsible research to be emancipatory, as it disrupts the status quo to unearth pervasive inequities. We therefore resist simplistic binaries of objective/subjective, constantly interrogate neutrality, and lean into the joy, creativity, and community-building required of research that is relevant, responsible, and legible to a broad audience — indeed, research that may be leveraged to help people change systems.”

What is power? 

Power is often considered in simplistic terms of “good” vs. “bad.” However, power: a practical guide for facilitating social change highlights that there are actually different kinds of power. ‘Power over’ is characterized by domination or control of one person, group, or institution over another. ‘Power with’ is defined by shared power, collective action, and the ability of many people to act together. ‘Power with’ is integral to equitable research approaches such as participatory action research (PAR). PAR is a multidisciplinary approach that pays careful attention to power and relationships, advocating for power to be deliberately shared between researchers and participants. PAR helps build the collective power necessary in the broader fight for equity and social justice.


• Learn about the history of harms in research.

• Read more about Participatory Action Research (PAR) and its benefits. Beloved Community’s PAR Overview outlines how to integrate PAR into your organization’s research practices.

• Support The Association of Black Researchers (ABR) by becoming a member or subscribing to their free monthly newsletter. Also, see the National Research Center on Hispanic Children and Families or the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute.

• When reading or sharing research findings, ask yourself: 
Whose stories or data was included? Whose stories or data was excluded? Who designed, conducted, and funded the research? How was the data collected? Who analyzed the data? How are authors connected with the communities of focus? Who benefits from this research and its analysis? Is any group harmed by this research and its analysis? Whose intellectual work is cited?

Why is interrogating power in research important? 

When power is uninterrogated, research has been used to create and exacerbate racial and economic inequities. Historically excluded communities, those who have been excluded from full rights, privileges, and opportunities in society, are consistently underrepresented in research. Where these communities have been included, there is a history of mistreatment. Federal guidelines on ethical research designate “economically or socially disadvantaged groups” and “racial or ethnic minorities” as “vulnerable populations” in research, in part because of the harms such groups have experienced in research historically (Swarthmore CollegeJournal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved). Additionally, much of the research produced today is concentrated in historically white institutions in academia, which continue to train and employ comparatively few scholars of color. In the fall of 2020, only 4% of full-time professors at degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the U.S. were Black; American Indian/Alaska Native individuals represented less than 1% (National Center for Education Statistics). 

Since research produces data that informs organizational and policy decisions, it is crucial that we understand the ways in which the people producing and participating in research shape its outcomes. The people who have the power to design, implement, and fund research play a key role in deciding which populations get studied, how those populations get studied, and how findings are interpreted and presented. 

How can research shift power? 

Beloved Community is a racial and economic equity firm that houses a multidisciplinary research team. At Beloved Community, we believe that disrupting existing power structures in research requires centering the lives of those historically excluded at every stage in research design. Interrogating power dynamics in research means re-imagining the relationship between researchers and communities. Participatory Action Research (PAR) is a research framework that emphasizes ‘power with’ and shared power. PAR encourages equitable collaboration between researchers and participants and is founded on the assumption that community members most impacted by an issue are best placed to design and implement that research (Participatory MethodsOrganizing Engagement). At Beloved, we leverage participatory action research to uplift the expertise of BIPOC and historically excluded communities to uphold our pro-Black, pro-queer, pro-womxn values and build ‘power with’ communities. In our NOLA CARES project, community members (known at Beloved as ‘PARticipants’) design research questions, learn research methods, and conduct surveys and focus groups to elicit the wisdom that lies in their own communities. Research is about power, and community members have the power to shape the who, the what, and the how of the research design and process. This is crucial because it challenges traditional hierarchies of knowledge production, shifts power to community members, and designates them as experts of their own experience (Organizing Engagement). 

Research is a powerful tool that can harm and exclude. However, with intentional approaches, including PAR, researchers and community participants can build the collective power needed to advance liberatory futures of social justice and equity. 


• There are enduring histories of harm, exclusion, and unjust power structures in research.

• Equitable research must intentionally interrogate power to generate data in the service of democratizing knowledge and enacting transformative social change. 

• Participatory Action Research (PAR) is an approach to research that can be leveraged to build the collective power needed to create more liberatory futures of social justice and equity.

This work was written with feedback from our diverse, multi-disciplinary team at Beloved Community. See more here

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Carla Melaco (she/her) is a Black, biracial researcher based in New York who works at the non-profit Beloved Community as Research Coordinator and IRB Administrator. // Dr. Makeda Austin is a mixed-methods research psychologist based in Chicago who works at Beloved Community as the Associate Director of Research.

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