submitted by Rebekah Stafford & Jordan Tackett Russell
This piece originally published in The Community Psychologist (TCP) Fall 2022 Volume 55 Number 4. All TCP columns are available online, at https://www.scra27.org/publications/tcp/
As early career Community Psychology researchers, the authors of this article are increasingly aware of whose voices are (and are not) represented in both our own and existing research and practice. Because community voices and ways of knowing are often excluded from traditional research practice, the authors seek to highlight the use of methodologies that researchers and community psychology practitioners can employ to enhance equity and assist in decolonizing our practices. Specifically, this article explores the participatory approaches and tools reflected in participatory action research (PAR), youth-led participatory action research, and Photovoice.
A Decolonizing Lens
Why are we specifically highlighting this research framework? Given the ubiquitous polarizing gap that has been dividing and driving U.S. political affairs, we have an opportunity to use participatory approaches and listen to those most impacted by such life-altering events, like the latest overturn of Roe v. Wade and the string of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation introduced across several states in the U.S. As community psychologists, we remind ourselves of the voices missing from these decisions. Change starts with dialogue, and we sit at tables with vacant seats. So, what are the ways in which we plan to start this change? Let’s listen to each other.
Whether early in our careers or established in our fields, it is important that we continue to understand and implement community-based approaches that center lived experiences, promote dialogue, and advance equity and empowerment. It is imperative that we dissolve the hierarchical regime of research, provide opportunities for people to understand how research is conducted, why it is conducted, and how it can be used to change individuals, communities, social groups, and governmental policies, and encourage the evolution of maladaptive cultural norms. PAR approaches can assist in this process by addressing social challenges and inequities through community liberation and action.
Moreover, PAR can be used to restructure and decolonize communities (Lenette, 2022) by fostering a more holistic approach to community enrichment. For example, Kessi (2018) utilized a narrative approach to learning about Black women and LGBTQ+ students’ experiences at a university in South Africa as they advocated and called for a free, decolonized education. These narratives exposed power imbalances within the school system as student struggles encompass “violence of institutional spaces, the policing of their bodies and the silencing of alternative ways of knowing and doing” (Kessi, 2018, p. 114). By reinforcing equitable spaces and encouraging LGBTQ+ women to speak their truths, Kessie exemplified the value of PAR. So, what is PAR?
Background on PAR
PAR is a research framework that emerged from the belief that those most impacted by the research should be leading each element of the research process, like generating and framing the research questions; developing the design; establishing the methodology; analyzing their findings; and choosing how and if they want to disseminate that information to their community (Torre et al., 2012; Lennette, 2022). In centering the knowledge held by community members and engaging them as co-researchers, PAR is an approach to knowledge production rooted in valuing multiple epistemological foundations, including traditional scholarship, indigenous knowledge, and other historically excluded or de-legitimized ways of knowing. While some researchers refer to participants of PAR as co-researchers and the researchers as “academic researchers,” we recognize that non-academics and community practitioners conduct research and should be recognized accordingly. As PAR strives for a decolonized approach to information gathering, it also seeks to dissolve the power imbalance traditionally enacted in research studies where there is a knowledge hierarchy (Lenette, 2022). This knowledge hierarchy can be seen as, “I am the researcher, you are the participants.” The information is given to me (the researcher) by you (the participant), is interpreted in the way I see fit, and then discussed among my peers where it stays locked up in a “file,” published in an article only accessible to those who know about it or is found insignificant and perishes. While there may be other reasons why this information does not reach a more inclusive audience, there is still a disconnect between the information gathered and the people it is intended to help. The PAR framework can help bridge this gap.
Youth Participatory Methods and Engagement
Through participatory research frameworks such as PAR, we engage in research that highlights the expertise of communities and builds their capacity to be co-researchers through the exploratory process of data collection, analysis, dissemination, and application. A growing leg of PAR encouraging this research empowerment and capacity building is focused on youth and is often known as youth or youth-led participatory action research (YPAR). YPAR upholds the values of PAR while specifically focusing on the expertise that young people hold (as opposed to only adults) to generate knowledge focused on improving their lives, communities, and the institutions that serve them (Rodríguez & Brown, 2009). Existing literature on YPAR (Anyon et al., 2018) has often qualitatively demonstrated positive outcomes related to several categories:
1. Civic engagement, leadership/agency, and self-efficacy
2. Academic/career, public speaking, study skills, goal setting
3. Social connectedness and community support
4. Critical consciousness
YPAR has many different shapes and applications, but the most prominent can be found in establishing equitable spaces for youth researchers and co-researchers to create solutions (Haskie-Mendoza et al., 2018); youth researchers collecting data using surveys (Ozer, 2017), and the Photovoice method (Vaccarino-Ruiz et al., 2021) to identify their needs. Photovoice has been an integral data collection and analysis tool that includes previously excluded voices.
A common tool used within YPAR and other participatory research studies is Photovoice. This versatile method attempts to dissolve the hierarchical relationship between research participants and researchers (Kindon, 2007) by emulating the community’s expertise on the issue at hand and leveling the information designing and gathering process. After conducting a quick online library search of Photovoice applications, this tool can be found highlighting social justice, igniting environmental change, evaluating diverse types of human-centered health programs, studying mental health illnesses, and structuring interviews. One can find many uses and applications of the methodology that cross multiple fields of study, as it can be easily applied in universal ways.
Photovoice is a fluid methodology, yet it sustains a structure that makes it a viable resource to connect with the community and retain pertinent information needed to make a change. Kindon, Pain, and Kesby (2007) wrote a book about PAR methods and applications describing how Photovoice as a tool is used in research. Utilizing this method starts with determining who are the communities involved. Once the communities have been identified, the separate social groups, together, discuss the particular needs of that community and the goals they are seeking to achieve. Photographs, or pieces of art, are then created by the community through the “lens” of pre-established themes (or a prompt) where they can be shared with others to discuss the meaning and impact. Most of the time, the photos are paired with answers to these five reflective questions known as the SHOwED method (Kindon, 2007):
- What do you see in the photo?
- What is really happening in the photo?
- How does it relate to our lives?
- Why does this condition exist?
- What can be done about it?
One author of this article has experience using the Photovoice method with YPAR groups. This experience is described below.
Back in 2017, our YPAR research was focused on exploring the perceived benefits of community gardening with elementary school students. As a way to conduct focus group interviews, students were asked to take pictures of what the garden meant to them. The students flooded researchers with pictures of the plants that they grew over the study period; as well as pictures of hands working in the garden. But this picture, seen below, stood out as the student shared that nature was the other half of the heart created by their hand. Conversations with students disclosed their love for nature which led to students reporting perceptions about helping the earth by recycling, riding their bikes more than driving, and being more involved in food preparation and shopping with their family members.
The garden was not the only part of the study, as we did have a team teach weekly lessons about food nutrition. In the end, students reported feeling a sense of community with their peers, teachers, research team, and family. Was it because of the garden? Was it because students had the space to talk about such topics? Was it the environment of the school, the culture of the classroom? Further study is needed. If there is one thing we did learn, it was that Photovoice created an opportunity for the students to express themselves and have “fruitful” conversations with different groups of people in their lives.
Furthering Community Conversation
Several aspects of PAR can be utilized to support engagement, organizing, and conversations around community issues. The first few poignant ways are recognized in the name; facilitating empowering actions and participation from community members (participatory); acting on social justice practices to encourage equitable distribution of resources like newfound knowledge (action); and using empirical grounding to strengthen the validity and uphold the scientific rigor of the research process (research) (Kloos et al, 2021). Additionally, PAR’s roots formally respect human diversity through its applicability to tailor to the communities addressed (Lenette, 2022). These are just a few of the ways the framework embodies the core values of community psychology practice, but just like any other method it requires critical reflection and iterations.
Challenges with Participatory Methods
It may be easy to get lost in an idealistic picture of participatory research, so it is important to highlight that engaging in these methods, whether as a researcher or community practitioner, does not come without its challenges. For example, while participatory methods intend to challenge hierarchical power dynamics enacted through traditional research practices, tensions can, and often do, arise between academic researchers and community researchers when it comes to power-sharing and decision-making (Call-Cummings et al., 2019; Grant et al., 2008). For researchers and practitioners engaging in YPAR, these tensions can also come from the desire to prioritize youth voice while at the same time providing the guidance youth may need to complete project goals (Winn & Winn, 2016). Challenges such as these underscore the importance of researchers and practitioners grounding any PAR or YPAR project in the values of the approach (Littman et al., 2021) and reflecting on their experiences and challenges.
In addition to these relational and power-sharing challenges, logistical concerns in participatory research also arise. For instance, when utilizing Photovoice, all co-researchers must be given access to cameras and introductions to the process of photography and digital storytelling. In the garden project described above, the author also encountered challenges and potential limitations due to the environment (the school) in which students were able to take photographs. The author notes that this limitation may have restricted their options for thoughtful expression and response to the research questions.
In order for PAR to be a more dynamic, holistic community psychology framework, we also need to address its narrow focus on single-level perspectives. Does the name Urie Bronfenbrenner (1979) and his ecological model analyzing the different levels (e.g., family, school, political climate, culture, etc.) that impact individual communities sound familiar? This model became one of the key pillars of community psychology, yet how often is it studied within PAR methodologies? Lenette (2022) would agree that in order to truly capture the diversity within a community, conduct scientific inquiries, and work with the community to create an applicable solution, we need to incorporate a multilevel perspective to the PAR practice.
While PAR and other participatory research methods do not come without inherent challenges, these challenges should not keep us from continuing to engage in more inclusive practices, decreasing the hierarchical regimes and coloniality embedded within our research and practice. We must seek ways to engage those who are most impacted by research, not just as participants, but as our co-researchers. It is in the act of utilizing participatory approaches and tools that we as psychology researchers and practitioners are able to use our positions to promote community conversations and empower community members to become researchers and change agents. Let’s fill the vacant seats at the table of collective dialogue.
For more information, contact: Jordan Tackett Russell, email@example.com.
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