Navigating the Twists and Turns of Community Based Research

by Cary Chapman '18
May 4, 2015

TRI-Lab is a new initiative with the Swearer Center that combines teaching, research, and impact. In the Climate Change and Environmental Justice Lab, students on the communications team learn that the road to a meaningful project is not always a smooth ride.

As part of the TRI-Lab (Teaching, Research, Impact) initiative focusing on Climate Change and Environmental Justice in Rhode Island, three student sub-groups formed to address different resiliency objectives. The projects, ranging from social cohesion to resident mobility to green infrastructure, are designed to help Providence’s West End neighborhood increase resiliency within the context of climate change impacts. Our group, which focuses on Communications, needed this entire semester to come up with the following elevator speech for our mission: “We want to understand the social support networks in place in the West End as well as residents’ relationships to climate change. We want to showcase existing green adaptations, and empower neighbors to take the lead on building resiliency in their community.”

That phrase, “needed this entire semester,” is a little misleading. The reality is that the majority of our efforts in the beginning part of the class were centered around understanding what community based research is, our own outsider status relative to the community with which we hoped to engage, and navigating social and cultural barriers that might prevent a group of Brown students from helping the West End in a meaningful, sustainable manner. If you are picturing a room of students arguing for months on end without coming to a conclusion about the construction of two sentences, erase that image from your mind because that is not how the class was set up. We weren’t given the whole semester to work on our project ideas, and that is exactly the point. Instead, we read books and articles about environmental and social change, heard from community partners about their observations and needs, and reflected on the importance of an inclusive, democratic process to ensure the success of a project meant to benefit a certain group of people. Process, we learned, is just as important as shiny deliverables.

So I say the phrase “needed the entire semester” intentionally and proudly, because it means that the projects our class will embark on have been carefully deliberated, wanted in the community we serve, and well-positioned to be put into action within our timeline. I always had the notion that projects must move in a forward, linear direction to be successful. If not, the project was a failure.

The Communications group has shown that this doesn’t have to be the case. At times, we may feel stuck or frustrated, and we certainly do not have everything figured out, but we have learned to be flexible, open to new ideas, and patient. Our original plan, for example, was to start a dialogue with doctors about the intersection between climate change and public health. We had read in class that of all the sources of health information, primary care doctors are the most trusted. Maybe, we thought, we could get physicians to weave climate change into their interactions with patients. Or if not, at least we might be able to distribute some literature in waiting rooms. But after reaching out to a number of health clinics serving the West End and doctors affiliated with Brown, it became apparent that doctors’ busy schedules would not be conducive to the kind of collaboration we were looking for.

Working in collaboration with community partners, in particular the West Broadway Neighborhood Association (WBNA) and the West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation (WEHDC), our group switched gears to a neighborhood-sharing, peer-to-peer learning direction, with the hope that more interconnectivity between West End residents would facilitate increased green adaptations and social network security. By mapping community assets (such as rain barrels and de-paved driveways) and organizing a neighborhood tour with workshops about those assets, we hope to inspire people to get to know one another and incorporate green structures and practices into their lives. In order to make the project self-sustaining after TRI-Lab ends, we hope to give control of the completed map over to our partners in the community so that they can make changes to it as needed over time.

We hope that our efforts will have a lasting impact in the West End, which is the reason we are participating in the class. But we are also growing our own capabilities along the way, learning what it means to brainstorm in a group, receive feedback, feel lost, and work through obstacles. For us, the class is just as much about learning how to effect change in a compassionate, thoughtful way as it is about carrying out any specific project.