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Research in the Service of Community
By: Tiffany Muller Myrdahl
Earlier this year, I had the privilege of inviting Dr. Brett Stoudt, Assistant Director of the Public Science Project, to deliver one of CERi’s first workshops.
I have been teaching Stoud’s work for a long time because he is one of few scholars I know who conducts research with community, using quantitative methods that allow us to gather and analyze data from a broad population.
Most people understand quantitative research as a set of traditional, top-down methods that try to turn social phenomena into questions that can be answered by numbers, statistics, and calculations.
We perceive quantitative research this way because that is how it is taught. Training in these forms of data collection and analysis conform to outdated “truths”: that quantitative tools can be apolitical or value-free, that they require observation from a distance, and that they are a form of expertise available to the few.
Stoudt’s work, which is grounded in community-driven, participatory approaches to developing quantitative evidence, explodes these notions.
Stoudt’s work, which is grounded in community-driven, participatory approaches to developing quantitative evidence, explodes these notions. His work with the Morris Justice Project, a long-term collaboration with communities of colour responding to police violence, demonstrates that research strategies can and, in many cases must, be undertaken in conversation with community.
In the podcast interview, he described the conditions that gave rise to this work, which emerged well before the Black Lives Matter movement. Many communities of colour in NYC had long been the targets of “stop and frisk” policing, but in the 2000s and after, this tactic became even more aggressive. As he notes, “in 2011 alone, the NYPD recorded 685,724 stops; 84% [of those stopped] were Black or Latinx” (Stoudt, et. al., 2019, p. 7).
This policing strategy also had a particular geography, which was focused in the most impoverished neighbourhoods, with the fewest resources, and which were also experiencing the threat of gentrification.
Stop-and-frisk and similar police tactics (carding in Toronto, street checks in Vancouver) have devastating impacts on people’s lives. In the Canadian context, Black and Indigenous people bear the brunt of these strategies.
The Morris Justice Project was a response to these everyday forms of violence. Designed to work with those who face the greatest impacts, the Morris Justice Project centred community, where community researchers were involved at every step of the way, from framing the study to analyzing the results, to directing the output of the data collected.
Compared to a traditional model of quantitative research design, where researcher expertise is reinforced at every turn and data extraction is the goal, the Morris Justice Project employed a fundamentally different model of knowledge production.
It offers an important illustration of the scope of community-engaged research design, from the origin of a project through to its conclusion. For those of us who received traditional training and replicate those instructions with our students, the Morris Justice Project also provides a model for re-thinking some business-as-usual research practices such as:
- Research is conducted on community or “subjects;”
- Research is envisioned as an endeavour that necessarily serves everyone’s best interests;
- Research reinforces a damage-centred narrative (see Eve Tuck, 2009); and,
- Training in research ethics focuses on exceptional harms.
As Stoudt reminds us in the podcast interview, “research can be and has been an incredibly violent pursuit, in justifying and reproducing some of the very oppressive structures that we are trying to push against. In general, it has tended to harm communities of colour here in the United States.”
Research can be and has been an incredibly violent pursuit, in justifying and reproducing some of the very oppressive structures that we are trying to push against. In general, it has tended to harm communities of colour here in the United States.
A research design that refuses these logics and outcomes is critical. For the Morris Justice Project, this meant co-developing research to actually serve the needs of the community.
The impact of the Morris Justice Project was felt far beyond the community of the 42-block region it took place in. Being in service of a coalition and a movement made it possible for the researchers “to give [our data] to lawyers involved in stop and frisk court cases, and policy makers involved in policies designed to create some accountability and transparency around stop and frisk policies. We were able to give our numbers and our research legs… because of our organizing relationships,” notes Stoudt.
Citing Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Stoudt identifies this as research in the service of organizing.
There is no one-size-fits-all research design. However, it is incumbent on those in positions of power to think differently about how to wield that power.
However, it is incumbent on those in positions of power to think differently about how to wield that power.
If we think of data collection as an intentional act – which it is – then we must also understand researchers who set the terms of research (which questions are asked, how those questions are asked, who is centred in the process) as having an incredible amount of power.
Lucky for us, we can look to examples like the Morris Justice Project to see that even quantitative methods can be grounded in principles of collaboration, anti-racism, and social justice.
For more information, check out:
- Brett G. Stoudt, María Elena Torre, Paul Bartley, Evan Bissel, Fawn Bracy, Hillary Caldwell, Lauren Dewey, Anthony Downs, Cory Greene, Jan Haldipur, Scott Lizama, Prakriti Hassan, Einat Manoff, Nadine Sheppard, and Jacqueline Yates. 2019, “Researching at the Community-University Borderlands: Using Public Science to Study Policing in the South Bronx.” CUNY Academic Works: https://academicworks.cuny.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1668&context=gc_pubs
- Eve Tuck, 2009, Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities. Harvard Educational Review, 79:3, http://futuresinitiative.org/criticalracescholarship/wp-content/uploads/sites/228/2019/01/Tuck-Eve-2009-22Suspending-Damage-A-Letter-to-Communities22-.pdf
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