I’ve spent the last two weeks conducting semi-structured interviews with small business owners in Camden, NJ. Throughout this stage of research, I’ve wrestled with how to get business owners to share their stories with an outsider. I taught in the city and can navigate its potholed streets, but I look and talk differently. Sometimes asking for a conversation to inform a somewhat foreign document, a “master’s thesis,” is too much to ask of an extremely busy business owner. And in a city where speaking up can lead to a visit by code inspectors, they are hesitant to share any information. But when they do, what great stories are told. There is the public school teacher who, after thirty years, retired and opened a daycare, a Rutgers graduate now running a café serving a new generation of students and the surrounding community, and brothers living their dream of sharing their childhood passion for sneakers with others.
Now the question for me is what to do with the information I’ve heard. I don’t want to be the researcher who comes in, extracts findings, writes a paper that gathers dust on a shelf, and leaves the interviewee in the same state of understanding. In the spirit of action research, how can I co-create knowledge with these owners to help make their businesses more successful?
A first step is to share some of their stories here. Slowly, one business at a time, these individuals are helping to transform the city. They see and pursue Camden as an opportunity. Business to them is not just about making a profit, but doing so in a way that enhances the community, whether through creating local jobs, being a place where kids can hang-out, or by providing a missing service. These individuals are leaders and role models for creating positive change. I look forward to sharing their stories with you.