How Residents in Baltimore Are Redefining Community Research
What would it look like for residents to lead research projects where they collect, analyze, share and own data about their neighborhoods? A new report from the East Baltimore Research Project (EBRP) describes an effort to put the research process, from start to finish, into the hands of the community.
The project began in 2016, when the Annie E. Casey Foundation partnered with Frontline Solutions to identify residents from East Baltimore who could help design and lead a community-driven research effort. One year later, the East Baltimore Research Project was launched.
After years of investing in East Baltimore neighborhoods, “[we wanted] to know whether the Foundation’s investments and those of other organizations were helping residents access the resources that they needed to thrive,” says Kimberly Spring, director of research and evaluation at the Casey Foundation. “At the same time, we knew that residents were frustrated and fatigued at ‘being researched,’ and we didn’t want to replicate that approach. We intentionally used our funding to support a research project that was led by and primarily benefited the neighborhoods.”
The publication, created by the residents — known as community advisors — who have been leading the project, provides an overview of the training process used to onboard resident researchers and shares key findings from a survey the group developed to understand community members’ priorities. It also explores secondary benefits the project had for the community — including the engagement of local food vendors to support meetings and events — and shares recommendations for residents interested in working with funders to pursue similar efforts.
What is the East Baltimore Research Project?
The East Baltimore Research Project was launched in 2017 by seven community advisors — Kirsten Allen, Cynthia Gross, Alex Long, DeJuan Patterson, Lamontre Randall, Ernest Smith and Sarah Wallace — and staff from the Casey Foundation and Frontline Solutions.
Based on a shared belief that “residents know what’s needed to contribute to a safe and thriving living environment and should have a voice in shaping its changes,” the group identified several goals to guide their work:
- provide training and assistance to build residents’ ability to collect and interpret data that can ultimately be used to inform community change efforts;
- conduct interviews, surveys and other activities (led by residents, in partnership with a research firm) to collect reliable data that answer research questions identified throughout the project;
- share demographic characteristics of who lives in the area, what services and resources exist and how residents are using them, and what else community members would like to see;
- build the capacity and relationships of project team members, residents and stakeholders through team building, professional development and engagement with various stakeholders; and
- provide resources and diverse opportunities to spur new ventures and businesses.
The community advisors agreed to focus their efforts on the neighborhoods bordered by East Hoffman Street, North Broadway, East Fayette Street and North Luzerne Street because they include a good mix of young and older residents, homeowners and renters, newcomers and longtime residents, schools, community organizations and businesses.
A Collaborative Approach
The EBRP team consists of six core functions:
- The community advisors serve as project leads.
- Mirror Group is the documentarian.
- The Annie E. Casey Foundation is the primary funder.
- Staff from the Urban Institute serve as research consultants.
- Community members living within the project boundaries serve as resident researchers.
- Fusion Partnerships is the fiscal sponsor.
Early in the process, team members established a set of values to guide how they work together: trustworthiness, transparency, accountability, flexibility, purposefulness, inclusivity and respect.
“We agreed on these values during our first retreat together,” says Sarah Wallace. “They continued to guide us and keep us on track as we built what we believed community-led research should look like from the ground up.”
The East Baltimore Research Project was designed to “challenge traditional research’s extractive and problematic history of excluding community voices, particularly those of people of color,” the report says.
To achieve that goal, the group focused on methods “that involved the intentional and explicit inclusion of studied communities as contributors, participants and reviewers.”
“The East Baltimore Research Project shows institutions that there is a way of gathering data that isn’t extractive,” says Lamontre Randall. “It enables the community to own and fact check data that’s relevant to them.”
After issuing a request for proposals in 2018 and interviewing eight potential partners, the community advisors selected the Urban Institute to help train residents to collect, analyze and disseminate data.
“The East Baltimore Research Project is important to me because it radically disrupts the traditional, at times extractive, relationship that disenfranchised communities have had with research,” says Eona Harrison, a senior research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute. “EBRP allows me to be part of an effort to correct that relationship while learning from community members.”
Members of the Urban Institute team worked with community advisors to develop learning opportunities that would equip residents with the skills needed to collect data on the issues community members cared most about. The model focused on a range of topics, including best practices for developing research questions, analyzing data and reporting findings.
Since the project’s launch, six resident researchers have been trained and onboarded using this curriculum.
“This project was about so much more than just the data,” says DeJuan Patterson. “It gave us the opportunity to grow our leadership skills, reimagine the way we think about research and develop new partnerships with stakeholders in the community. It also infused resources — including time, knowledge and passion — into our neighborhoods. The value of an effort like this cannot be overstated.”
Understanding Residents’ Priorities
In 2020, the resident researcher team developed a pilot survey to understand community members’ priorities. The survey — which was administered in person and online — included questions such as, “What is your top priority for East Baltimore?” and “Why is that your top priority?”
The group received 109 responses during the one-month administration window. Of those, 70% lived within the designated project area; 25% lived in other East Baltimore neighborhoods; and 5% lived elsewhere throughout Baltimore City.
Respondents’ top four priorities were housing (30%), jobs (21%), education (20%) and crime and safety (12%).
“If we get to root causes, it’s all connected,” said one resident. “The lack of good jobs… lack of good education and resources, lack of affordable housing… it all connects.”
Adapting to the Pandemic
In-person relationship building, among the project team and with community members, was a crucial aspect of the East Baltimore Research Project. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the team was forced to find new ways of maintaining the trust and rapport they’d established.
They shifted to virtual planning meetings and events and used their Facebook page to communicate with residents and promote engagement opportunities.
“With COVID, I thought that may be the end,” says Davina Carter, a resident researcher. “I am glad we forged ahead. We made a lot of changes to get it to this point, and I think we will take that same energy and tenacity into [the future].”
Best Practices for Working with Funders
The East Baltimore Research Project was a new way of working for the Casey Foundation and the residents who participated.
Drawing on their experiences, the project team included several recommendations for working with funders. They include:
- Get to know the funder by researching the types of projects it supports and its processes and expectations.
- Present a clear plan that outlines measurable objectives and ways the community will benefit.
- Connect with other organizations that share your values and look for ways to collaborate.
Next Steps for EBRP
The community advisors are working through next steps to house the information that’s been collected and ensure East Baltimore residents can access and oversee it. Once the group identifies a sustainable platform, they plan to develop guidance to help other community members use the research findings in ways that benefit their neighborhoods.
Ultimately, the report says, the EBRP team hopes to “enable a greater number of residents to use data to advocate for themselves and make decisions about their community that will lead to vibrant, equitable and sustainable neighborhoods.”