In my work with grassroots organizations over the past seven years, I’ve often been struck by the distance between the questions that community members are urgently seeking answers to and the questions being asked in academia. Every once in a while, however, I would come across someone involved in a “participatory action research project,” often within immigrant and other under-served communities. This was an approach which intrigued me because it seemed to be bridging this gap. What exactly was participatory action research, I wondered, and how might one go about doing it?
Now, as a Masters student with concrete opportunities to engage in research, these questions have taken on new urgency and relevance for me. If, as students, we want to engage communities directly in our research, what skills do we need, and what steps should we follow? How might students approach course assignments or other required research projects from this orientation, and where within the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning could we look for support in developing the skills to undertake this type of research?
Over the January 2011 Independent Activities Period (IAP), a special four-week winter term at MIT, a group of ten Urban Planning students, under the direction of Professor Larry Susskind, met in seminar course to examine these questions. Through readings and discussion, we familiarized ourselves with the theory and practice of action research and began to think about what would be involved in conducting a rigorous action research process with a specific community. We created visual representations of the steps involved in action research and were tasked with developing a framework that could guide our approach to action research moving forward.
Students in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning visualizing key steps in action research. Drawing on left by Farzana Serang. Drawing on right by Jenna Kay.
The results of this work, which include an eight-step framework for approaching action research, have been summarized by Professor Susskind in a brief document.
Through this learning process, it became clear to us that action research is a potentially powerful method for supporting communities in building the capacity needed for effective social change. It is also a way that students and researchers can contribute to solving specific problems facing communities, while at the same time generating knowledge that contributes to advancing their fields.
While this seminar reinforced the potential of action research, it also made us aware of the need for additional support if we hope to be able to integrate this type of approach into our work. Currently, it is unclear what resources (in terms of training, mentoring, skill-building, et cetera) exist within the Department or MIT to help students develop the skills needed to become effective practitioners of action research. There also do not seem to be many opportunities to practice this style of research in the context of classes or required coursework. Professor Susskind’s report offers some important next steps which would go a long way towards answering some of these questions. As students, we will also likely need to advocate for this approach to research, if this is something we truly hope to incorporate into our planning education.
Post by Elizabeth Hoffecker, a Master of City Planning Candidate at MIT. Previously, she worked in Portland, Oregon as a consultant to community-based organizations.