People are not problems; yet often are essential for solutions

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There’s good news and bad news for universities and our researchers. The bad news is that we are not the exclusive experts we thought we were in pretty much any field. While our research grants and centers show interest and dedication to knowledge production, they fall short in understanding the nuances and priorities of people experiencing the challenges we aim to address.

The good news is that there are communities with lived experience in the exact area we aim to study. They have insider, front-line knowledge on each dimension of the challenge and insight on how to address it. In short, lived experience complements diplomas in research every day of the week but it is even better to have both arrows in your quiver.

For universities to maximize their relevance and efficacy in community-based research, we posit three ideas:

  1. People are not a problem to be “fixed”
  2. Challenges and research questions should be crafted with the affected communities, beginning with the earliest research question framing stages rather than a late stage research afterthought (we’re looking at you ‘Broader Impacts’)
  3. When appropriate, universities provide resources and knowledge as a guide, not an authority

In the spirit of this article on citizen science and the architecture of participation, we must reframe communities from “passive problem generators only to be included when the solution has been created from the ivory tower and needs testing” to viewing communities as driven, curious people who have lived experienced and expert knowledge on a challenge and are eager to be part of the discovery process and take ownership of the solutions.

Here are four times challenges were reframed. The result each time is that previously excluded expert communities became the solution:

  1. When Ecuador legalized gangs and the murder rates plummeted
  2. Portugal decriminalizes all drugs and overdoses, HIV transmission, and drug related crimes all drop
  3. When Finland closed their housing vulnerability loop through their ‘Housing First’ program
  4. Despite scarce resources, to improve relations many police departments have deliberately developed welcoming practices towards immigrants.

As Dr. Linda Williams notes in the fourth challenge above, “Welcomeness matters. It is the administrative means by which departments treat immigrants as members of the community deserving of protection and service and it may foster a dynamic whereby immigrants learn to trust and partner with the police to address issues of crime.” When we flip the problem inside out and avoid the temptation to “other” groups with different needs, we can find common ground in the solutions we design together.

People are not problems to be fixed. They are not class projects or problem statements for a research prompt. People are parts of real, diverse communities who care about the solutions that affect them and the way they are crafted. The community experts with actual lived experience have the knowledge, capacity, and ultimate motivation to organize and get to work. As academics, we can bolster this success and amplify their stories of discovery by contributing resources and guidance.

This post was co-authored by Erik Johnston and Jessica Givens

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