Six Takeaways on Participatory Action Research (PAR)

PAR workshop 10.15 image

On October 8, 2015 faculty, staff, community partners, youth researchers, and others convened at the University of Minnesota Urban Research & Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC) to advance their Participatory Action Research (PAR) practice. The speakers specifically spoke about yPAR, or Youth Participatory Action Research, but their examples and techniques can often be applied to PAR, generally. 

YPAR, and the larger umbrella of PAR, is a powerful tool for community engagement that recognizes communities’ own valuable knowledge. It functions both as research and a process for making social change. Furthermore, PAR engages those who have been marginalized, silenced, or otherwise unheard through traditional research processes and hierarchical systems in an experience that is itself empowering. Here are a few takeaways from the recent PAR training:

Recruitment: Campus partners can offer valuable compensation to young people such as cash stipends; useful college credits in research, ethnic studies, or community organizing; or community service hours through the juvenile justice system. Just because incentives bring youth to the table doesn’t mean that’s what will keep them. PAR is powerfully engaging work. Macalester faculty and PAR practitioner Brian Lozenski reflects that when he has asked Uhuru scholars, “Why did you come?” the answer is often: “For the college credit.” But when he asks, “Why did you stay?” they say, “Because we were doing cool stuff.”

Moving from Anger to Desire: Lozenski invoked Michelle Fine, faculty at City University of New York, and her observation that social critique, outrage, ambivalence, and desire are all forms of knowledge. He called PAR a “transformative process that’s educational as you change emotions into critical data collection and analysis.” Instead of being disallowed, as it is in many dominant cultural settings, anger is put to use in PAR, generating informed activism.  This can be both socially productive and personally healing.

Faculty and Other Adults: Faculty and staff have a difficult role to navigate in yPAR processes. Neese Parker, Youthprise’s Philanthropy (re)designer and member of the Northside Research Team told participants, “Young people are your professors” in PAR because they are the experts of their own experiences, and it’s critical for faculty and other adults to honor this: “When youth feel respected, they will feel invested.” Therefore, faculty have a facilitative rather than directive role in the PAR process, both recognizing and carefully using their power. Strong adult facilitators consistently give youth choice on who to work with, talk to, what to ask, and how to respond to their findings. However, they are not blind to power. They facilitate honest conversations and trainings about how power is at work in the research process.

Discomfort: Experienced adult participants at the recent workshop warned others that PAR is often uncomfortable. Gabriela Anais Deal-Marquez of Voices for Racial Justice reflected on how PAR processes often surface trauma. The role of the facilitator is to help young people realize their own resources for moving through their pain. She recalls, for example, having youth share with one another their own healing practices when dealing with difficult work. It can be particularly uncomfortable for adult allies when what young people uncover through their research is threatening to the status quo.  At those times, it is the role of adults not to constrain the researchers but help them explore options and make informed decisions about how achieve their goals for change. Lozenski noted that he will sometimes “barter [his] privilege to advance the cause of young people.” For example, he can use his voice as a faculty member to create avenues for youth to be heard in spaces of power.

Outcomes: Katie Johnston-Goodstar, Assistant Professor of Social Work at the University of Minnesota,  noted that the outcomes of a PAR project may not be what faculty or adults are expecting.  Early in her PAR work, she expected activism to include presenting findings to policy makers, until she learned that the young Native women she was working with saw activism in creating a community garden and learning about Native medicine. There are many routes to change, and the outcomes of PAR aren’t only the research collaborative’s chosen social action. Researchers also experience personal outcomes. Some youth, especially those with marginalized identities and those who have been alienated from their own knowing, may not want to identify as “researchers.” However, Fayise Abrahim of Youthprise says the PAR process exposes participants to varied modes of knowledge production, including cultural, traditional, and experiential knowledge. After a while, participants may reclaim “research” and begin to feel proud of identifying themselves with it.  Susan Gust, a community development consultant, also reminded participants that the power-sharing model required for an authentic community-engaged process is an outcome of its own: “Even if your projects fail, if you’re building a model of shared power, you’re succeeding.”

by Sinda Nichols, Minnesota Campus Compact