How Residents in Baltimore Are Redefining Community Research

Posted May 23, 2022
A group of eight Black men and women stand together — smiling — in front of a local business.

Credit: Ryan Bowens Photography for the East Baltimore Research Project

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.”

Com­mu­ni­ty-Dri­ven Research 

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.”

Learn more about Casey’s efforts to sup­port res­i­dent lead­ers in Baltimore

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