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Bringing Community to the Table

Posted on January 16, 2008

If the only place we publish research findings is in academic journals, asks Darrell P. Wheeler (bio), how will that change the community?

 

I think the question becomes who is community, and what do we mean disseminating to community? There are times when what we produce as academics, as scholars is only intended for a very narrow audience because of the language we use, because of the venues in which it's published, because of the cost of the publications.

You Google some of these academic journals; you're not going to find these journals in the public domain. People don't have access to them. You have to be a member of the elite libraries to have them online or a graduate student yourself.

So when we say, "We're writing for community change," what do we mean we're writing for community change? So one of the things that we've done in our project, and I value greatly, is we brought community members to the table in a significant and paid way through the life of the project.

They served as what we called our core consulting group, and these members represented key agencies within our sphere of research, and our research was on African-American men who have sex with men. And we were specifically looking at men here in New York City.

So the players from these agencies sat with us from the development of the instrument, right after the award was made, for the entire life of the project, through monthly meetings, and sometimes more frequently reviewing protocols, reviewing the instrument development.

We held them accountable for reviewing and delivering comment. They held us accountable for making changes or justifying not making changes to the particular protocol. And yesterday, we held a major community forum, where we rolled out - gave back to the community in digestible community format - data that is in more real time, as opposed to waiting three or five years for the journal articles to come out.

And what we got yesterday were members from the academic community, the service-based community, client consumer groups, students in that space, asking one another interesting, critical, intriguing questions about the research, which I don't think we get when we just publish an article.

So I think we have to ask who is the community? Are we bringing community to the table early enough to understand what their needs are? Or are we tokenizing the experience of community engagement, which I often see in research. We put the one token person there, who is the model community member, who either says nothing or says exactly what we want them to say and never pushes the envelope. And then when the data rolls out, we look at ourselves and go, "Well, we don't know why the community is not running here to get the data." Well it's because we didn't intend for them to.

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Excerpted from interview with researcher in September 2007.

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