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Conducting Participatory Action Research in Academia and the Community

The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University is offering a free summer course titled Conducting Participatory Action Research in Academia and the Community. As we work to address racial injustice and other inequities in the US and across the globe, we must also establish ethical, inclusive, and empowering practices for collecting data on historically marginalized populations. In this course, participants will learn how to employ Participatory Action Research (PAR), an approach to data collection that emphasizes participation of underrepresented groups in determining the questions to be studied and then helping to collect, analyze, and disseminate the data collected about them. PAR advocates for collaboration, shared learning, and broader social change. In this course, we will examine different theories about how data and ideas are created and work in groups to identify specific PAR strategies participants can apply to their own research and data collection projects. Participants will leave the course with an understanding of how historically exclusionary research perpetuates racial and other types of inequality. They will also leave with knowledge of alternative, more democratic approaches to data collection and a concrete plan to apply PAR principles in their research and organizations. We hope to also create a Community of Practice we can turn to for feedback and support after the training is over.

This course will take place over four weeks in July, 2021 for a total of 15-20 hours (exact dates/times TBD, based on participants’ availability). The course will be held on Zoom. While our focus is on organizations in Greater Boston, it is open to anyone who can participate synchronously on Zoom. The course will be taught by Dr. Anjuli Fahlberg, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Tufts University, an activist-scholar who has conducted multiple PAR-based projects on activism and urban violence in Brazil. 

Interested applicants should fill out the interest form here by May 15, 2021.

Participatory Action Research

Participatory action research (PAR) is an approach to collecting data that has, at its core, three objectives:

  1. Participation: To involve research subjects in each step of the research process as decision-makers and knowledge producers, alongside “formal” researchers;
  2. Education: To promote shared learning by encouraging dialogue and exchange of information and ideas between researchers and participants;
  3. Action: To more equitably distribute the direct benefits of the study while also promoting broader social and political change.

Data collected through a PAR methodology has several practical benefits as well:

  1. The PAR process fosters collaboration, dialogue, and exchange between groups that are often divided based on institutional roles (i.e. provider vs client or researcher vs. subject). Through collaborative knowledge construction, we all learn more about each other—and about ourselves!
  2. PAR gives greater voice to historically marginalized populations who are invited to teach “outsiders” (i.e. those who are not from the population being studied) about their experiences, interests, and concerns. Through PAR, these groups may be more willing to share their perspectives and needs than through more traditional avenues.
  3. It promotes creation of new, innovative, and interesting ideas. While academics often collect data that is interesting to their disciplinary field, and NGO researchers collect the data that funders or administrators want, the research population may have entirely new, different, and creative ideas about what types of data could be collected and what stories this data might help to tell. 
  4. Data and findings can help to strengthen grant proposals, design and justify new programming, re-assess priorities and resource distribution, and lead to new questions, concepts, approaches, and solutions to problems.

The Course

This course will equip participants with the theoretical and practical knowledge needed to employ a Participatory Action Research approach in their own work. Researchers of all kinds are welcome, including those collecting data in non-profit organizations, public agencies, graduate students in the social sciences, and those in postdoctoral, research and faculty positions. Upper-level undergraduate students planning to engage in primary research may also join. During the course, we will:

  • Read and discuss select writings on PAR, epistemology, the production of knowledge (note: readings will be academic, but accessible to a general audience);
  • Identify and discuss the institutional, political, financial, and normative barriers to employing PAR in different environments and studies;
  • Brainstorm, individually, and collectively, PAR-based approaches to each participant’s current or planned research project;
  • Problem-solve around the obstacles that researchers may face in their efforts to conduct participatory action research; 
  • Co-create a Community of Practice which we can turn to after the course ends where we can share ideas and find support and encouragement as we experiment with PAR approaches in our projects and institutions.

Logistics & Details

Important Note: In the spirit of democratic decision-making, we hope to structure this course to incorporate the needs and interests of what will surely be a diverse and experienced group of people from a variety of institutions and backgrounds. While some basic guidelines have been established to give participants a general sense of the course, we look forward to soliciting input from interested participants as we construct the course and as it unfolds!

Cost: Thanks to the generous support of the Tisch College of Civic Life, we will be offering this course at no cost to participants.

Dates and Times: The course is scheduled to take place over 15-20 hours “in class” (i.e. synchronously on Zoom) over approximately four weeks in July, 2021. There is some flexibility with dates and times based on participants’ availability. Applicants will be asked on the Interest Form about their availability, and final dates and times will be set to accommodate as many people as possible.

The instructor will be available to meet with participants one-on-one between classes to answer questions and brainstorm about projects. Participants are also welcome to meet with each other outside the structured class time to work on their projects if they so choose.

Location: At present, we plan to meet fully on Zoom. 

Note: If possible, we might decide as a group to attempt some hybrid options, wherein some participants are in person (Tufts campus in Medford) and some are on Zoom. TBD as a group and if the pandemic allows. Those choosing to remain fully on Zoom will be able to do so.

Course content: The course will include readings and discussions about how knowledge is created, with a focus on writings about historical beliefs about the “right” way (and “right” people) to gather data, as well as more recent critiques of these exclusionary practices. We will also have weekly workshops on how to implement PAR principles to specific research/data collection projects that participants have planned. We will spend time discussing potential barriers to implementing PAR principles, including financial or bureaucratic constraints and imbalances of power between institutional representatives (i.e. employees/faculty) and the people they serve or study. Some limited readings will be assigned, to be read between classes.

Please note that this course will not teach actual research methods (i.e. how to conduct interviews or collect survey data), though you may learn some of this information through large and small group discussions and workshop sessions. Our focus will be on how to apply the principles of PAR to a range of data collection projects you already have planned or underway. For instance, we will not provide detailed explanations about how to construct survey questions or use SurveyMonkey. We will, however, discuss ways to generate survey questions in collaboration with participants, as well as potential challenges you might encounter in trying to be inclusive of participants who may not have training in designing survey questions. While participants do not need to be experts in research methods, they should be generally familiar with how their agencies or mentors have used data collection in the past so we can brainstorm together how to make these methods more inclusive and action-driven. We will also co-create a Community of Practice, where you will meet and connect with people who might be able to help you develop new research methodologies, even after the training is over. 

Qualifications: This course is geared toward people who will be conducting research in the near future with historically marginalized populations. While you do not need to have a concrete research plan (in fact, some flexibility at this stage is ideal), you should have a general sense of what you might want to study within the upcoming year. This could include formal research projects, evaluations and assessments, or other types of data collection (oral histories, short stories for a website, photojournalism, etc).

Participants may be from an academic setting (including advanced undergrad and grad students in the social sciences, postdocs, faculty, or other social scientists), or from a community-based organization, activist group, the public sector, or other relevant agencies. If you are unsure if you qualify, please fill out an application and we will be in touch with you. While the training aims to create a Community of Practice in the Greater Boston area, this year’s course is open to participants in any part of the world, as long as they can participate synchronously through Zoom. Organizations may send up to three staff people (space allowing), who may rotate between classes if necessary.

Certificate: Participants will earn a certificate in “Conducting Participatory Action Research” from the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life upon completion.

Benefits: In addition to the certificate, participants will leave with a general understanding of the harmful impacts of historic beliefs about who is qualified to “create” knowledge and which methods are “correct.” Participants will also leave the program with concrete plans for how to incorporate PAR into the research/assessments they have planned and how to address obstacles they are likely to encounter. 

They will also leave the course as members of a Community of Practice aimed at promoting PAR approaches across the social sciences and community-based research more broadly. It is our hope that this community will serve as a valuable resource for helping each of us along our journey, far after the training is over, to democratize knowledge production and promote the leadership of marginalized populations in research, despite the many barriers that can make this endeavor challenging. There are many possibilities for collaboration after the training, including ongoing workshops, partnerships between scholars and NGOs, a one-day conference later in the fall, etc. We can co-develop these together!

About the Instructor

Anjuli Fahlberg, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Tufts University and an affiliated faculty member with the Tisch College of Civic Life. For the last eight years, Anjuli has been conducting Participatory Action Research in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where she was raised. Her research is based in Cidade de Deus, a poor, mostly Black neighborhood often referred to as a “favela,” where residents have a long history of being studied, but rarely invited to help lead the study. In partnership with dozens (sometimes hundreds) of local residents, Anjuli and her team of local residents have collected data on healthcare, education, housing, insecurity, resilience, and the impact of the pandemic on the community. She’s co-authored reports and articles with residents and is currently writing a book about activism in favelas, which has had extensive participation and input from local residents. For more information about these projects, visit www.anjulifahlberg.com and www.construindojuntos.com (click on Brazilian flag in top left corner for English version).

Before graduate school, Anjuli spent five years working in various non-profit organizations in Massachusetts with immigrant survivors of intimate violence and homelessness.