This is part 3 of our interview with CHIRP’s Principle Investigator/Program Director, Kerry Vachta, about what the CHIRP Research Team’s role is within CHIRP. Be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2 of the CHIRP Research Team interview!
Q: How is the CHIRP research project different from other social science projects that take place in community settings?
Kerry Vachta: CHIRP is a community-based participatory research project (CPBR) rather than a conventional social science research study. In conventional applied social science, researchers develop “interventions” or programs to address a social problem based on what current theory in their field of study suggests will work to solve that problem or to build on what they and other researchers have observed in the past. The researcher defines what the problem is, what kinds of solutions may be effective and what outcomes are pursued based on their knowledge of existing academic research. Participants are typically passive recipients of programming: they may provide feedback on their experience and report any changes, but don’t typically define the problem, solutions or desired outcomes. They may complete surveys or other research measures, but are not typically involved in the process of creating them or determining the methods and constraints that best suit their community.
CPBR reverses that conventional top-down model, recognizing that everything we know as researchers represents a synthesis of what we have learned from individuals and communities who have elected to share their knowledge and experiences with us. Thus, we challenge the conventional power dynamic between “researcher and researched” by recognizing the expertise of those with lived experience and our dependence on their insight and cooperation to gain knowledge which may be of use to others in similar circumstances. In turn, we attempt to apply the skills and tools of social science research in the service of the communities with whom we work when and where they feel our services can be of use. Our primary purpose is not to test a theory and develop a better model of the world to share with other scholars. Rather, we are working in support of and cooperation with people and organizations who are attempting to create and realize a shared vision for their own communities and sharing what we learn to help other communities learn from their experiences. Our work may go on to inform theory and help other scholars to better understand the world and to be able to more effectively contribute to change in other communities, but that is not the primary function or purpose of participatory research.
The CHIRP project is an example of participatory action research. For example, rather than establishing an ideal outcome based on theory, previous research, or benchmarks set by a funder or agency, the community-based partners identify the goals and objectives they hope to achieve via their programming. We work with them to create tools to assess how well they are achieving those self-identified goals. Participating families also share their objectives for participating and assess whether those are met as well. We conduct observations of the programming and work with the partners and participants to try to identify how they are addressing child health and well-being differently than more conventional programs. Based on the results, we will develop tools to share successful activities with families and organizations in other communities so they can benefit from what our partners have developed here in Detroit. Ultimately, the results may help the professionals and experts learn how to better serve the needs and interests of children in other communities with similar resources and barriers who, to-date, have not successfully been served by more conventional approaches as evidenced by continuing disparities in child health outcomes.
Another thing that makes the CHIRP Research Team different – even from most CPBR projects – is that almost all members are Detroit residents and half are lifelong Detroiters. So, while most CPBR researchers are concerned with shifting the balance of power from researcher to community, our relationship is both complicated and simplified by the fact that the researchers are themselves often of the community. Those members have shared important insights that have improved our work and better ensured community interests remained centered in the research. For example, we have developed new strategies to ensure participant confidentiality based on input from the Project Assistants about how some steps that most researchers might take to protect participants’ rights actually undermined confidence among our participants that their identities were secure.