Why Community-Based Research Matters to Science and People

August 18, 2015 | 9:38 am
Lauren Richter
Doctoral Student

When and how does research serve people? When and how does community-based participatory research improve the “rigor, relevance and reach” of science itself? Today we are witnessing an increase in collaborative research projects that seek to address environmental and environmental health issues in polluted communities. While an academic scientist may have access to labs and facilities, a community living near an industrial-scale hog farm in North Carolina may have unique insights about the types of exposures and acute and chronic health impacts they routinely feel and observe. Their experience can inform research questions, study design, and the types of research outputs that could assist local groups as they advocate for health-protective public policy.

This post is part of a series on Community Connections: Bringing Together Scientists and Local Voices.

After almost five years at a community-based environmental justice organization, I am now a doctoral student in Sociology at Northeastern University, and member of Dr. Phil Brown’s Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute (SSERHI). The opportunity to learn from low-income communities and communities of color facing high levels of pollution informs my understanding of the limits and potential of scientific research. Over the years I witnessed ongoing struggles between communities, industries and various state agencies about environmental health concerns. Often in question were the potential dangers of different types of industrial emissions, amounts of emissions, adequacy or existence of health standards, and meaning of whether or not health standards were met. Data production and contestation were at the core of many environmental justice struggles I saw.

Teresa De Anda, pesticides activist, in front of her home, directly across the street from agricultural fields.  In 1999 a large cloud of pesticides drifted on her small town of Earlimart, CA, spurring her activism in pesticide drift issues.  She died of cancer at age 56 last year.

Teresa De Anda, pesticides activist, in front of her home, directly across the street from agricultural fields. In 1999 a large cloud of pesticides drifted on her small town of Earlimart, CA, spurring her activism in pesticide drift issues. She died of cancer at age 55 last year. Photo credit: Tracy Perkins

On-the-ground knowledge is valuable, and is more than anecdotal. In fact, it can be our only source of information at times. For example, Teresa DeAnda’s personal experience of pesticide drift affecting her home and her family in 1999 motivated her to respond quickly to other local drift accidents. After accidents in 2002 and 2003, she went door-to-door in these exposed neighborhoods, helping residents report their health impacts to the Department of Pesticide Regulation. Her organizing enabled a more accurate account of the actual extent and impacts of the accident, leading to more health protective public policy. Knowing how valuable local knowledge can be, I am interested in how researchers and communities have collaborated in the past. What lessons can we learn?

On March 15, 2015, Toxics Action Center (TAC), in partnership with the Massachusetts Climate Action Network, hosted its annual Local Environmental Action Conference in Boston. This conference brings community leaders and environmental advocates together for trainings and networking, and this year featured a keynote from Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program. With Elisabeth Wilder, a fellow doctoral student and member of SSERHI, we put together the panel “Academic-Community Partnerships: An Open Forum on Collaborative Environmental Health Research.”

We created this panel with two goals. First, based on volunteer, work, and academic experiences, we sought to showcase a range of research approaches, outputs and partnership arrangements in environmental health research. Second, to engage in a conversation with community leaders, advocates, and researchers to understand past experiences and hear ideas for future research. Perhaps most importantly (and often overlooked by scientists) we hoped to discuss the qualities of collaborative research that meet the needs of community partners.

What’s out there? What’s useful?

Our panel showcased a range of examples of collaborative environmental health research, largely in response to questions we have heard from community members and NGO staff like: “What models are out there? What could we do?” The panel featured speakers engaged in collaborative environmental monitoring projects in Boston at the Silent Spring Institute and Alternatives for Communities and Environment.

We additionally provided an overview of three non-exclusive types of research and outputs that we’ve come across in our training: quantitative “hard data,” civic science, and qualitative “soft data.” We highlighted some of the core qualities and types of questions different methods could address. A quantitative study might answer “what” questions, such as, “Are hazardous waste sites disproportionately located in Latino communities compared to white communities?” A civic science project might involve researchers and community members using low-cost monitors to sample air quality near a hazardous waste site. A qualitative study seeks to answer “how” questions, evaluating the impact of data production and dissemination, asking residents, local policy makers and industry staff what they have done in response to this data and providing insights into the behavior of various stakeholders.

Exploring what is useful research raises many questions. Certainly different partners may have different needs or require distinct outputs (i.e. a community training vs. an academic publication). However, one area that we hope to hear more about in future conversations and forums (including the upcoming Union of Concerned Scientists Community Connections forum) is what types of studies appear to meet community goals and address their needs (well, really all of our needs) for drinkable water, breathable air, and safety from chemical exposure? We see this as a very complicated question that entails looking at short-term and long-term impacts, the relationships between multiple players with varying degrees of power, and changing political and economic contexts.

Moving forward

One promising path forward in the works is the Environmental Justice Research Network. This network, a partnership between the New England Environmental Justice Forum and New England Environmental Justice Research Collaborative, will serve as a conduit for connecting community groups needing research support or seeking partnerships with scientists, academic centers and others with pertinent skill sets.

For community groups and grassroots NGOs seeking immediate support navigating questions and concerns around data production (and academics, large NGOs or others seeking to undertake community-based partnerships), some valuable places to start include webinars and trainings by the Center for Environmental Health and Justice and Dr. Madeleine Scammell and Dr. Gregory Howard’s report “Is a Health Study the Answer for Your Community? A Guide for Making Informed Decisions.”

As local, regional and global environmental problems increase—with varying impacts across places—working in long-term partnership with communities can inform both our knowledge of and direct our collective path through these difficult challenges.