Building Robust & Inclusive Democracy

How a Community-Based Participatory Research Project Navigated the Pandemic

Tufts students and faculty, working in partnership with community leaders from The Welcome Project in Somerville, learned valuable lessons from adapting their research due to COVID-19.
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The COVID-19 pandemic is having a profound effect on community-based participatory research (CBPR), which depends on trust built through in-person relationships for equitable research partnerships. This unexpected research barrier is especially felt in neighborhoods with immigrant families disproportionately impacted by our current health, racial, and economic catastrophes. Many communities active in CBPR, for example, are the same communities hardest hit by the coronavirus. 

CBPR is prioritizes collaborative leadership and a reflective iterative process to create knowledge for positive community impact. Right now creativity and flexibility, hallmarks of community-based participatory research, are at their most invaluable. We can craft better and more relevant research from understanding how CBPR partnerships are sustained and even grow during crisis. Student, academic, and community partners from a local CBPR initiative provide insight into these challenges and opportunities.


While Massachusetts ranks highly in national education measures, immigrant students experience disparities in educational outcomes. In response, The Welcome Project, Somerville's leading immigrant organization for civic engagement and leadership development, was interested in learning about immigrant families’ experiences with Somerville schools. In 2019 they collaborated with Dr. Shalini Tendulkar, instructor for a CBPR course in the Tufts Department of Community Health. Together with Tufts undergraduates, they collected data from 33 immigrant parents and other community stakeholders. 

The project grew in Spring 2020 with a new student cohort, supported by a seed grant from the Tisch College Community Research Center. Researchers sought to expand the interviews, compile an educational scorecard on immigrants’ experiences, and disseminate findings in a linguistically accessible manner.

Tufts students learned about Somerville communities, CBPR, and qualitative data collection. “Before field work, we learned about Somerville beyond Davis Square and Tufts... and we examined our own identities and how that plays into research,” explained Olivia Kahn-Boesel, A20. The partnership with The Welcome Project, which has deep networks in Somerville, made this learning possible. After less than two weeks of interviews, however, the pandemic abruptly closed Somerville schools, The Welcome Project programs, and Tufts classes.

The instructors, Dr. Tendulkar (Community Health) and Kenia Alfaro (The Welcome Project), and the students, scrambled to figure out what was now possible. Should they shift to a virtual research project? Should the course focus on theory? Or should the research team continue, even without conducting in-person interviews? 

The Importance of Flexibility

Kenia Alfaro highlights that CBPR’s “inherent flexibility is an asset in this moment... We can see more clearly how we actually do research. We can think about it without the things we’ve taken for granted, reevaluate what we do and what barriers exist: How do we really do this?"

“CBPR literature talks a lot about flexibility,” Shalini Tendulkar concurs, “and dealing with the pandemic provided an opportunity to learn and experience this in real life.”

The co-instructors note that COVID-19 particularly impacts CBPR because in-person interactions are central to building relationships. This is relevant for communities not typically represented in research, including many immigrant parents.

Another consideration was the dramatic shifts in priorities once COVID-19 hit Massachusetts. Some students felt that, given the immediate crisis facing schools, this research topic became less urgent. Kenia Alfaro points out the research’s ultimate goals, however: “The importance of immigrant family voice hasn’t changed, and we need to honor parents’ pre-COVID experiences and interviews, as well as provide a sense of normalcy in not normal times.” Shalini Tendulkar explains, “A key piece is meeting the community where it’s at, and Kenia reminded me of the importance of not interpreting that to mean we needed to simply shift to all things COVID.” Olivia Kahn-Boesel amplified this goal, “Every research is adaptable, even CBPR during a shutdown. When everything first closed, I thought this research would end. But it can be adapted. It is still useful and important.”

The team shifted its process. Instead of collecting new data, they analyzed existing interviews to create a more refined codebook and better research dissemination.  Tendulkar notes that shifting from data collection to analysis was possible because the team had access to Spring 2019 data. They could now focus on how to communicate research in an accessible manner and create products useful to community members. By staying attentive to community impact, the team was able to leverage flexibility during an ever-changing situation.  

Lessons for Students

Students learned a lot from navigating this research during a crisis. Elizabeth McGowan, A20, emphasizes the value of investing in relationships from the beginning: “It would have been hard to start this work during the shutdown. Building relationships early on was important, such as visiting community partners, learning about different parts of the city... also, internally within the class.” She explains how important open relationships are for the research team: “It is the foundation for the research, to foster trust before data collection begins.” That trust continues to carry over once people can no longer meet in person. Alejandro Baez, A21, explains that this investment and mutual trust is “a cornerstone of community interaction.” CBPR, he said, “recognizes forms of exploitation and works against them” in ways that build credibility and make this work sustainable during crisis.

Students also highlight the value of communication and informal relationships building during the pandemic. “Meetings would start by checking in on everyone, to see where every partner is,” says Evan Robison, A21. He shares how the shutdown process amplified the importance of small interactions that had previously been taken for granted, both among community members and researchers themselves. 

Promoting equity in the community-academic relationships was also essential. “Everyone had equal voice,” shares McGowan. “At all points of the research project, it was ‘what do you think?’ and never top down. Everyone has experience and ideas. There was room to disagree and process.”

Alfredo Gutierrez Velez, A20, stresses the point that, both in CBPR and in class, equal voice translated into learning how research findings can be most useful. “One takeaway was how important dissemination is. And how to put info out there to reach different audiences... If the research can reach the right audience, it will have a bigger impact and people have the right to know,” he said. During a crisis, it's even more important to consider not just how research is conducted, but how research is shared. For example, while schools are struggling with shutdowns and new protocols, the research team is sensitive to competing demands and are rescheduling distribution and publication of findings.

Alejandro Baez communicates another important lesson from CBPR work: “Do not claim yourself as an expert. Community is very multi-faceted… like race, socioeconomic, and so on. You can’t claim to be expert because that means you impose your own values and thinking into a community that already has a voice.” This emphasis on continuous learning can guide research teams during crisis, and help partners rely on each other’s expertise. Jack Ohringer, A20, builds on this idea, acknowledging the need to “be able to reconcile that constant process of growth. It’s important in all research.” For this research team, it has included learning how to move everything online while remaining true to community voice.

What’s Next?

The research team drafted a 'scorecard' based on different domains of families’ experiences, creating a snapshot of recommendations for schools. But what does this research look like post-COVID? The team is still figuring it out. 

Considerations include revisiting with parents to learn about their remote learning experiences, for example. Both instructors mused that, now that there is pre-COVID scorecard data as a baseline, it might be possible to examine how things have changed. Dr. Tendulkar highlights that “education is one of social determinants of health. We should ask ourselves, how did the experience of receiving education work for families during the pandemic. How prepared are our systems of education to work with immigrant families during crisis?” This research can help explore these questions. 

The inherent flexibility of CBPR, demonstrated while navigating research during the spring of 2020, will certainly play an important role. Kahn-Boesel concludes, “Anything is adaptable, in research and other aspects of life. It won’t be the same, but it can provide real value.”