What is it? This research engages local residents in a process of studying one or more issues that affect their own community, with an end goal of identifying and implementing positive actions. Often, researchers from a school or university are involved, but residents may initiate a project, identify issues and decide upon actions. For many in higher education, this form of scholarship represents a radical shift away from traditional research conducted on a community by an outside expert. Instead, the community members become the experts and guide the process, in partnership with faculty or action research facilitators. One of the core ideas of action research approaches is that those affected by an issue or problem are best able to pinpoint what needs to be researched and changed. When projects are completed successfully, the end result is change: an improved community condition, the production of new knowledge that can better guide decision-making, and learning and skill development of the community member participants, which they can continue to apply towards local problem solving and change projects.
How has it been used? In the 1990s, Harlem residents, in New York City, became concerned about a bus depot located directly across from a school. A community group, West Harlem Environmental Action, partnered with researchers at Columbia University and local hospitals to examine issues connected with the school’s proximity to a bus station. High school students helped gather data on diesel exhaust and lung function among Harlem youth. Their study found that most local adolescents had been exposed to detectable levels of diesel exhaust, which has been linked to problems with lung function. The students’ research was published in an academic journal and led to further research, and associated funding. Perhaps most importantly, the neighborhood now better understands the scientific evidence of how these bus depots affecting the health of young people.. (Source: Jill Chopyak of the Loka Institute, published through the Harvard Family Research Project)