Submitted by eschneider on
Andrea Robles, PhD and Melissa Gouge, PhD

No one understands a community better than its residents; and no one can problem solve community issues with complete fairness more than its residents. Thus, empowering community members to identify local issues is the first step to solving pressing issues. That’s the sentiment behind participatory research.

AmeriCorps works toward strengthening communities by supporting and increasing civic engagement and volunteerism around the country. One way AmeriCorps is able to do this is through participatory research, which engages individuals and communities to explore local issues and produce more impactful, equitable resolutions.

Traditional research methodologies take a top-down approach to data collection and evaluation, with researchers taking a priority role while seeking to understand a topic or issue from the outside. Participatory research subverts that approach by empowering residents as experts who can educate and aid researchers on their communities from within. This alternative research approach emphasizes the importance of involving members of the community as active and equal participants in all phases of the research project.

AmeriCorps Research and Evaluation funds participatory research grants to investigate community priorities and develop actionable solutions. This cutting-edge methodology is built on three pillars:

Community: Community members are actively involved in the research. The residents’ voices are amplified, allowing them to reach more people and directly affect change. This promotes an equitable approach to community solutions by considering the needs and concerns of the community from a first-person point of view.

Research: Research incorporates community experiences and perspective into the process to maximize validity. Rather than reading and studying communities from afar, the researchers are in the field and gain first-hand details and data directly from the residents. This contributes to a more authentic approach to their work and can thereby improve the validity of the research.

“Without that support of research…legislators or policy makers will look the other way because at the end of the day, numbers talk. Hard research does talk. And so, it's been exciting to see, with [participatory research] how that can really support community work.” - Leslie Abraham (Smith College)

Action: Community stakeholders take actionable steps based on research findings. While researchers have the best intentions, they are not usually directly ingrained in the communities when using traditional research approaches. Consequently, research does not always translate to action. Residents have a vested interest in the outcomes of their communities, and by being part of the research and solution, they can take a much more active role in enacting change.

Through technical assistance and grant-making opportunities, AmeriCorps amplifies participatory research nationwide. In addition, it connects communities with AmeriCorps’ national service programs to efficiently assist in tackling the community issues identified during the research process.

It's really fun. It's rewarding. It's impactful. It's different than other types of research. When we do other research projects that aren't community based or have an action component, sometimes it feels like we publish and we're moving on with our careers. But what is really happening with this stuff? With this project, I know that we're trying to make a difference in people's lives, and we are making a difference in people's lives. I feel like that's what we're supposed to be doing with our research, research to action. And the community-based participatory model just naturally lends itself to that. – Dr. Jennifer Willett (University of Nevada, Reno)

Learn more about the work of the AmeriCorps Research and Evaluation grantees.