How Community Leads the Way with Participatory Action Research (PAR)


Communities can be “researched,” engaged, and surveyed to explore a variety of questions such as what barriers are preventing students from graduating? What are the local economic and health impacts of having only a few grocery stores in the area?

It’s important to rigorously explore these types of questions, but there can be danger in taking data and stories from a community for the purpose of research. You can fall into the trap of “community extraction” if the research is not deeply connected to how that community progresses.

Participatory Action Research, otherwise known as PAR, is a methodology that engages those closest to the issues and positions them as the leading experts in research on and about their community.

To learn about PAR, and what it looks like when community members are the researchers, we hear about the work of NoLa CARES, a collaborative of childcare organizations that focuses on creating access, resources, and equity for the success of Black and Latine women in New Orleans, Louisiana.

In this podcast episode, we talk with Dr. Nnenna Odim (Beloved Community) and community researchers Peggy Patterson and Lisa Williams about how NoLa CARES practices PAR to further their goals –  embedding it into their initiative to uplift community leadership, voice, and expertise, and support community members to take the lead in the changes they want to see.

Ways to listen: You can listen below or on your preferred podcast streaming service, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Simplecast, iHeartRadio, Amazon, and other podcast apps.

Please find a transcript of this talk further down this page.

Resources and Footnotes

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The Intro music, entitled “Running,” was composed by Rafael Krux, and can be found here and is licensed under CC: By 4.0.

The outro music, entitled “Deliberate Thought,” was composed by Kevin Macleod. Licensed under CC: By.

Listen to Past Episodes: You can listen and subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Simplecast, iHeartRadio, Amazon, and other podcast apps.

Podcast Transcript

Welcome to the Collective Impact Forum podcast, here to share resources to support social change makers working on cross-sector collaboration.

The Collective Impact Forum is a nonprofit field-building initiative that is co-hosted in partnership by the nonprofit consulting firm FSG and the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions.

In this episode, we’re exploring Participatory Action Research, otherwise known as PAR, which is a methodology that engages those closest to the issues and positions them as the leading experts in research on and about their community.

To learn about PAR, and what it looks like when community members are the researchers, we hear about the work of NoLa CARES, a collaborative of childcare organizations that focuses on creating access, resources, and equity for the success of Black and Latine women in New Orleans, Louisiana.

We talk with Dr. Nnenna Odim from Beloved Community and community researchers Peggy Patterson and Lisa Williams about how NoLa CARES practices PAR to further their goals –  embedding it into their initiative to uplift community leadership, voice, and expertise, and support community members to take the lead in the changes they want to see.

Moderating this discussion is Collective Impact Forum’s director of programs and partnerships Courtney W. Robertson. Let’s tune in.

Courtney W. Robertson; Welcome to the Collective Impact Forum podcast. My name is Courtney W. Robertson, director of programs and partnerships with the Collective Impact Forum, and I am your host.

Social science research has traditionally been relegated to someone at an academic institution or think tank studying a topic or issue and its impact on a group of people. They’re releasing their findings to the broader society. In many instances, though rigorous in its approach, formal research approaches can be disconnected from the individuals and community it focuses on, and often negate their experiences altogether.

In this conversation, we will discuss an alternative approach to research and community engagement known as Participatory Action Research that positions those closest to the challenges and issues as the leading experts.

Joining us today for this conversation are Dr. Nnenna Odim, associate director of participatory research at Beloved Community based in New Orleans, Louisiana; PAR researchers/community researchers Peggy Patterson and Lisa Williams, also based in New Orleans, Louisiana. Thank you all for joining me today.

If we could start by having each of you introduce yourselves and provide some context for our audience around your role in participatory action research.

Dr. Nnenna Odim: Yes, thank you. Thank you, Courtney for having us on. Look forward to the conversation. My name is Dr. Nnenna Odim, and as Courtney was saying, I guide the participatory action research component of many grants, but certainly one that we’ll talk more in detail with, NOLA C.A.R.E.S. That means that I help develop the design for recruiting folks to join the program, deciding timelines for carrying out the smaller projects and brainstorming the specific methods and incentives that we’ll use in the program. Then we have two other beautiful, brilliant folks who have been on this particular grant with me, Ms. Peggy and Ms. Lisa.

Peggy Patterson: Hi. I’m Peggy Patterson. I came aboard with Dr. O maybe two years now. It’s interesting. I really enjoy being a PAR researcher, researching things that was passionate to me, and also, I became a trainer, and I brought on other people such as Lisa Williams.

Lisa Williams: Hi. My name is Lisa Williams, and as Ms. Peggy said, she brought me on, and it has been a phenomenal experience going through personal things as far as on my research topic. It really pulled a lot out of me, things that I didn’t know I had in me. It has been an enjoyable experience.

Courtney W. Robertson: Awesome. Thank you all so much. I’m excited to learn more about the topics that you’ve all been focusing on and what that work looks like, excuse me. And now that the name has been introduced, I am asking permission if I can call you Dr. O moving forward.

Dr. Nnenna Odim: That’s so funny. Of course, of course.

Courtney W. Robertson: Beautiful.Thank you so much. So, Dr. O, if you could, because I’m sure there are folks who are listening who are familiar, but we probably do have folks who aren’t. If you could tell us a little bit about Beloved Community. What’s your mission and what kind of work does Beloved do?

Dr. Nnenna Odim: Yes, yes. At Beloved we are first led by Black women who unequivocally stand for how power lives in our communities, specifically Black, Indigenous, and Brown communities, and the research team is a multidisciplinary team at Beloved that focuses on racial and economic equity. We are on a mission. I know people have missions, but we are on a mission to build sustainable change through focusing on the people who change systems. So there are many systems that we are all operating in and living in and people who continue to keep them going, which means there are people who can change them.

There’s multiple ways that we do this. We are focusing on multiple regions like Bulbancha or New Orleans and Kansas City are some examples, but we facilitate discussions around equity and organizations, organizations in the child care sector and education and restaurants and hotels and funders who find those organizations important as well. So we’ll be talking more about a specific example of this but there is grants that we help guide, help guide that work. Period.

Courtney W. Robertson: I love how you talk about we do that by focusing on people, which from my understanding is what a lot of this particular approach to research focuses on. With that, we’d love to just hear more and really start with laying some foundation for folks. For those who aren’t familiar, how is participatory action research defined? Sort of what is it? And how does it differ from other research approaches or methods?

Dr. Nnenna Odim: Yeah, no, so, gosh. I love talking about this so I’m glad that we get to.

At Beloved, research in general, is about power. It is about acknowledging power in the methods that you choose, the people who you define as experts, the journals you choose to publish, and so participatory action research is the process of collaboratively seeking answers, finding answers that are informed and driven by community. We do this in ways, we choose methods that are edifying, that are inclusive, and regenerative when we focus on how communities take on the methods and PAR.

In this work specifically with participatory action research it’s been about sharing power and not just at how you’re recruiting, the beginning stages of research design, but throughout the entire design so that means the very beginning when you’re recruiting, but it also means deciding methods, asking communities which methods align most with how their communities or families or friends actually communicate and weaving those into the design and prioritizing actually those how communities already inherently communicate with each other.

So when you think about participation it’s really about seeing the folks who are engaged as experts in their experiences. It’s thinking about how they engage multiple systems which means they are well-suited to critique and solve a lot of the issues that systems have or challenges that systems or obstacles or systems create for families. And then that research practices if we’re inclusive, thinks about adapting practices, thinks about how people can be centered in decision making, and this draws on Shawn Wilson’s work who’s a researcher that thinks about research as ceremony. That’s been grounding me in a lot of my work because engaging folks, community, is a feature of how we all just live, and so while it’s a feature of research, it’s also just how we live. It’s about participation and then action.

So often, research can sit in journals, sit in books, but not actually returned to the communities that gave the information in the first place, so we think about research as action, about devising steps to change what is currently not working. That also means that we are held accountable to communities. We go back to ask what has been changed, what do you want to have changed, what are recommendations that you’d like to see, and that we move with an intention that acknowledges the power in communities to decide the actions that they want. When we’re thinking about the principles, that’s really about participating, folks who are participating, who do we decide as experts, and then how do we make sure action comes from the research that we engage.

Courtney W. Robertson: I love that and so many things even you said research is about power. It’s incredibly important.

If you could, Dr. Nnenna, sort of paint the general picture of that process, what it’s like. How does this get introduced? How does the community know that this exists? How do those individuals and community identify who are leading and then sort of like what is that, for lack of better words, the feedback loop, look like with community and then how do you land on this? Is it, and here’s how we’re going to move to action?

Dr. Nnenna Odim: You actually heard it in the beginning when Ms. Peggy was like, “Well, you know, I actually brought Ms. Lisa on,” and so this started out with just sharing what the hopes were for the grant. So in recruitment it was just like this is what we’re hoping to do. Is this what you’re hoping to do? So you know how sometimes recruitment can be trying to coerce folks sometimes, unfortunately, because it’s by incentives or whatever, and so as I was thinking about recruitment, I was like, what are your goals for the next year, year and a half? And how do we make sure that this program aligns with the goals that you might have for your life, for the dreams that you have, and so recruitment was really about trying to align with the needs of the community and trying to shift whatever our design was to what community was saying they needed.

In the very initial steps, research questions, for example, are often defined before they actually go out to the community, and in this grant that we’re going to be talking more about I was like, well, actually what is the research question that you would like to engage. So kind of switching who makes the decisions from the very beginning and then checking back in.

Often, once a decision is made researchers make that decision and then they bring it to the community as like this is what we’re going to do. We tried to switch that and check back in. It was like does that feel good? What do you want to do? What are you finding? What recommendations are you hearing that you’d like too? That was one way that PAR engages recruitment is that we try and align what community members are actually asking for.

Next, with snowballing where community members share with each other and people that are in their close circles to pull in other folks based on their experiences. If it went well, can you tell other folks that it went well, and we’ll see what they think.

And then now, we’re in dissemination. This podcast is one way to have multiple mediums of sharing the results or the findings of our projects and trying to make sure that community is still at the center of how we are engaging folks when we’re sharing our projects. That’s just a few examples of recruitment, in the very beginning stages, research questions are defined by the community, methods that were decided like surveys or interviews or actually engaging the community when they decide the questions and then dissemination tries to think with what are the community’s needs for listening, where do they listen as we think about disseminating our information or findings.

Courtney W. Robertson: And not just where but like how are they listening, what’s the preferred way. So I’m curious, because this is so different from how research is traditionally done, typically again, like siloed, comes from experts who probably have Ph.Ds. or are working on those things, etc. How do you balance taking this type of approach to research? Is there a community-driven, community led, and community be accountable in a lot of ways? How do you take that and sort of balance it with other types of research and data?

Dr. Nnenna Odim: Yeah, this is a great question because when you talk about people with Ph.Ds., like that was what I was disciplined in and realizing that communities are researchers. There are voices in communities and so we have been talking about how are you elevating your voice, because it’s been there. Your voice has always been strong. It’s just that now who do you want to hear it? And how do we make sure we put you in front of people who you want to hear your voice?

That’s been one way is acknowledging that communities have always had voice and so often people who are deemed experts decide whose voice they want to listen to and here we were talking, brainstorming about whose voice are we going to listen to. How do you want your voice to be heard? How do community members want your voice to be heard? It’s just been some of the same conversations about voice that I would say happens in other conversations about research. It’s just now community members deciding whose voice is going to be heard louder.

Courtney W. Robertson: And so are those researchers typically like looking at other data points that come from more traditional sort of research approaches, and how are they marrying the two, I guess?

Dr. Nnenna Odim: Yeah, yeah, this has been an ongoing question or just ongoing feature of research where looking at websites, looking at studies that have been done in more closed atmospheres, looking at—a lot of the surveys that we have been doing are going back into community, so the interviews are community members or family members or friends. A lot of the sessions that have been organized by PAR researchers, by the folks, community-based researchers are inviting their family members, are inviting folks who are most impacted by the issue to be the expert. So it’s not necessarily saying either/or. So often in research there is this duality. There’s this like trying to pit ideas against each other and here we are saying, OK, there are multiple voices. How do we make sure we can hear multiple voices, multiple truths at the same time?

Courtney W. Robertson: Absolutely. I would imagine that it also gives some flavor and some context to existing data and research that’s already out there. To say like, OK, this is from an academic perspective but now let’s like go into community and like add the texture to it, so you have a true understanding of like it’s not just numbers, right, represented on paper. These are people and here’s how they’re experiencing, how they’re interpreting, whatever that issue or challenge might be.

Dr. Nnenna Odim: Yeah. So often it is as though it is either numbers or stories that, yes, you’ve named that, Courtney, but that in real life that happens at the same time. That we can have multiple organizations, for example, in child care. To receive services, you are likely applying, to even open a center, you’re applying to multiple departments in the city, sewer and water, the licensing, food and nutrition. So you are actually touching multiple departments at the same time but for them you are a number, but you see them as like an actual story for every single time you are talking to them, you’re calling them, you’re trying to figure out what schedules they are on so that you can actually get your business open. So even though you’re seeing the numbers, like how many times you’re calling them, you have a story every single time you’re calling them and whether you actually got what you needed, whether you actually talked to someone that you needed and were able to open your center and made it more simple, more streamlined for you. So, again, this is highlighting all of the voices, many of the voices, and trying to put them in conversation with each other. I think that PAR is really strong at weaving rather than trying to cancel out voices.

Courtney W. Robertson: Powerful. Weaving those voices. I love that.

Let’s jump into like a live example, right? Again, we have Ms. Lisa and Ms. Peggy here who are on the ground PAR researchers who are doing the work. But would love to know, I mean hear, excuse me, what that looks like in practice for Beloved Community. Where have you seen it be successful in your work?

Peggy Patterson: Well, my topic was on how do I support kids with disability delays, developmental delays. And I came with that topic because it was a passion of mine because I worked with kids that had delays but didn’t truly understand how to reach them. So I had to once the research came about, I started researching to train myself on how to reach those kids and what I can do to support them better. So doing research it helped me not only gave me knowledge but gave me skills to kind of know how to handle it to get it done the right way and to be able to reach these children on the level that they were to teach them.

Dr. Nnenna Odim: So Ms. Peggy is talking about a project that Beloved engaged called NOLA C.A.R.E.S. where community researchers had their own projects that they felt were most important to them, and that started actually from—so Beloved Community leads a few grants and one of those was funded by J.P. Morgan, and it’s called NOLA C.A.R.E.S which stands for New Orleans Louisiana Creating Access and Resources for Equity and Success. Say that a couple times.

And so this grant was focusing on child care in Louisiana where there are some of the highest wage inequities for Black and Latina women. Most of the women are caring for children while also thinking about or not having certainty in their own child care or their own professional advancement or their own income, and so this grant was focusing on what does wealth building mean for you. What do the folks who are most impacted by this income inequity, wage inequity, think wealth building is, and so we were like, you know what? What do you think that is? What is an issue that’s on your mind, and as Peggy is sharing about how her focus was on children with delays because that was her everyday experience, and that then tied to what wealth building was like because you are working in something that you care about, you want to also be compensated for it because you’re doing all of this work to make sure that children are feeling comfortable in the spaces that they are, and so that’s just an example.

Ms. Peggy was showing an example of how when you actually listen to community, it takes you in so many different directions, and so this was wealth building, but wealth building led to childcare, led to developmental delays in childcare. Ms. Lisa, if you want to share a little bit about your project because wealth building means many things, not just one thing, and that’s what PAR helped us see, that Black and Latina women are caring for many different people, many different communities which means then when you think about wealth building or trying to funnel resources, it’s going to be multisectored.

Lisa Williams: Well, my research was based on opening up a family—or in-home daycare, child care because that was the topic. It was about child care, and I developed my questions because I was that voice. I had an in-home daycare at one time, but it wasn’t licensed, and I didn’t know how to go about getting licensed, so I used that research project to get my voice out there for those like me, and I know that it was needed because after I developed my questions, I came up with a flyer and I put it on community boards. I went to my local library, the one that’s closest to where I’m living, and the local little stores that they have around, I did that. People were responding but they weren’t just responding about the question that I had out in the community, they were asking me like numerous things in reference to the child care industry.

Because I sat down, I sat in on a lot of the other research projects, I was able to give them information that I didn’t have, that wasn’t available at one point but because we had that collaborative experience, I was able to share and to give names to other people. Now that we have a voice, now that I understand what I’m doing, I was able to help other people and now, you know, because I really felt vulnerable at that time when I wasn’t—when I was just doing it without any type of guidance or direction, and when I’d try to call and get guidance and direction, I was always put on hold or, you know, I’m going to call you later or send an email out and never responding so because I had to go through all of that, I made sure that I was right there, being that voice for all of those like me. That was it.

Courtney W. Robertson: Super powerful like focuses of your work and you being able to bring that experience, both of you, right, like your experience around that work into this process is incredibly powerful, and folks can see themselves in you as well which I think is likely a powerful piece of PAR’s approach as well, right? It’s folks like me who are, you know, understand my community, understand my context who I can have some level of trust if you will and from the onset, and trust in different ways I think sometimes isn’t present when you’re bringing in folks who are outside of community, that are people who come from more traditional research backgrounds so thank you.

Dr. Nnenna Odim: Yes, Courtney, and I think what is also being highlighted is that research is not separate from life. Like Ms. Lisa is naming that, OK, so you have this one topic and then as you’re trying to find responses or answers to that, you find some roadblocks but then because you had this community that you’re also going back to to talk to, they are sharing their own resources, you’re networking in ways that you didn’t even plan to, sharing resources, sharing names and contacts because life is connected to the research. What you’re doing on your daily is like when you’re sending out flyers, you’re going to the grocery store anyway so you’re going to put some flyers there. You’re going to talk to people, some of the, as Lisa was mentioning, some of the folks who came to her sessions were friends of other PAR researchers who connected them with her so the way that communities touch in general normally because they care and they want people to get access to their resources.

So I think that’s a feature that PAR highlights that often for communities who are experiencing inequity, research is not separate from life. It is part of our life, and so then as we’re finding—like any findings you make, we come across, we want to share them immediately so action is already built in to the research but traditionally I’ve experienced research that is separate from the community and so it is very extractive or transactional. It goes in, it asks questions, and then it leaves with that information and doesn’t actually impact the folks who just gave you that information, and so that’s a beautiful feature of PAR is that it acknowledges how inherently just the power in community because that’s how we have been keeping each other going in the first place, is by sharing resources, acknowledging voices that are important. So that’s something that I deeply value in research and in PAR.

Courtney W. Robertson: Thank you all for that. I’m curious what has been the community’s response to engaging in a process like this, and I see Ms. Peggy laughing so—

Peggy Patterson: Well, for me because I was dealing with developmental delays with kids, my results are parents actually getting the help for their children like IEPs so that was the desire, to get the child help for me. So once speaking with the parents, and this wasn’t always easy because some parents are in denial so just talking to them and letting them know if they were doing it early, you know, get the help for their children early, it could benefit them in the long run so just going through the process and actually being patient and waiting until mom or parents are ready, you get the result that you’re looking for. I have about three kids now that parents actually accept the IEP, and it’s helping their child so that was my reason of getting the result for the child to better teach the child so the child could learn.

Courtney W. Robertson: Absolutely. So I’m curious for all of you all just in general as you think about sort of like the community being the ones who lead sort of like what questions are being asked and how are we doing the research, etc., how is that landing with folks in a more general sense?

Dr. Nnenna Odim: I mean I think that they’re personally, the way that I am seeing it land is a lot of the PAR researchers are community-based researchers, and you heard Ms. Lisa naming this too is that you feel like your voice is going somewhere. You feel like there is something happening when you speak up. We’ve had folks name that they feel like they’re powerful, they feel seen because another feature of our work with NOLA C.A.R.E.S. is that incentives were built into the budget. Grounding incentives so something that I felt really strongly about was that if we are focusing on Black and Latina women who are often the caregivers of community, there’s a lot of labor already built into the roles that they are taking on, and so I want to care for you.

So we had grounding gift cards where I would just ask how have you taken care of yourself. Here is a gift card to make sure that you are taking care of yourself, if that means taking a walk, if that means going for a date night, if that means getting your nails done, if that means—whatever it is, however it means for you, however it shows up for you, that I am asking you about how you are doing that for yourself because I know that you are caring for other people, and so I’ve noticed that that comes up more often, that people are trying to take moments for themselves to just reflect, think about what they are doing, if that’s the role they want to be taking on, taking moments to just breathe because that has health implications, that has relationship implications, that has life implications, if you are not feeling well to actually offer help to others.

So that’s one way that I’ve seen the community responding. It seems like people are actually trying to take moments more for themselves so that you can process all of the other work that’s ahead because these systems, they are complicated layered systems of inequity and oppression and so trying to take that on as a community is exhausting, and so who is checking in on you, and so that’s been a feature of this grant as well. So I think that is one way it’s been impacting community, and they’ve named that to us.

Peggy Patterson: And giving not only the PAR researchers a voice but giving a community a voice because I do surveys, and you’ve given them surveys and they’re expressing how they feel so to actually be, you know, know how they feel so you can help.

Courtney W. Robertson: Thank you, Ms. Peggy, and Lisa, I saw you shaking your head. Anything you’d like to add to what’s been shared?

Lisa Williams: Yes, I would like to add just to know that I helped just that person that felt like me, that was phenomenal because there are more people that like me, that couldn’t find answers. They didn’t have a person to go to so when they found me, we all collaborated together and we found the answers, and we didn’t feel like we were alone anymore.

Courtney W. Robertson: So beautiful and important. It’s almost like having to try so that’s what it sounds like this builds in community and taking back the power. To your point, you said research is power for like community really being able to take power and ownership around what’s happening for and to them in a lot of ways so thanks for lifting that up.

So I’m curious, we talked about the really beautiful things or the nice things but we all know that in reality not everything, you know, is golden, right? So really curious to hear from you all what have been some of your challenges and pitfalls that you’ve encountered as you’ve engaged in this particular method or approach to research? What have been some of those challenges and pitfalls for you all?

Lisa Williams: I’ll go ahead if you don’t mind. Some of the challenges and pitfalls that I found was getting to the people, actually getting to the right people, not just people in general but for those who are genuinely interested in the same project that I was researching on. When I got to those—when I reached the ones that were actually interested, my project was a workshop and it’s not like you’re just going to read through it really quickly and it’s going to, you know, you’re going to get your answer. You have to be really sincere about what you want and what you’re looking for because just like I said, when I reached that one person, I felt like I wasn’t alone anymore so when you don’t have that support, that’s the most important. That’s most important so for me for the most part, I was just happy to make that connection and to see that I wasn’t alone anymore.

Courtney W. Robertson: Awesome. That’s super important too like you said, not just getting to people but getting to the right people as well.

Peggy Patterson: For me it was parents, getting the parents to acknowledge that my child is unique, that my child is a little different, that my child’s learning ability is different so for me the challenge was parents because you have to get them to get to the point to understand that it’s going to help their child because one day that little child going to grow up and be a man or a woman so you want to get the help for them while they’re young. That was my challenge.

Dr. Nnenna Odim: I know what I hear you saying too is like that there’s—it’s a range of understandings about how children are raised, how children experience the classroom, timelines and when they should be learning something which is a feature of a wider grant I would say in PAR. Timelines has always been something that researchers decide, and they might be flexible but there is—you know, when you have grants, you have dates to turn in numbers, and so that then kind of shifting who decides the timelines has been one thing that I know I’ve personally been engaging with, that tension around, you know, the schedules are different. If you are working all day and then doing a project that is on top of your work all day, that means that the timelines are a little bit longer. It means that I want to be adaptable to the challenges that come up. If you’re working all day and you’re stressed at your job too all day, how to balance and harmonize all of these different responsibilities that you are asked, that you’re tasked with while then also taking on this other one so for me that was one of the—not stretching moments, just remaining trustful that however you all were telling me that it was going to work was how it was going to work.

So another at the level—we talked about moving at the speed of trust, and so that was a principle that I kept being reminded of like, no, no, no, I trust you all. However it is working, I know that you are doing your best to get whatever done, and so—or to like ask certain people or touch, reach certain communities or find certain questions for surveys, and then it’s like moving at the speed of trust.

Peggy Patterson: But it was a timeline that she gave us that you let her know what you’re able to do so it made it kind of not so much for me challenging but it gave me like a, how would you say? I guess a timeline to if I said I’m going to have three interviews in this particular week, well, if I told her that, then that’s what I need to do because, first of all, the trust so if I’m telling her that, then I need to meet that deadline. So she made it kind of easy for us, Dr. O, made it kind of easy for us because we were able to tell her when we wanted to have the actual work done so that helped us get through our other jobs we had.

Dr. Nnenna Odim: We talk a lot about capacity. I remember you were asking me, Courtney, about like how is this different or how is this distinct, the methods in PAR, and so often you start out with research projects, or I’ve been on research projects where you say, you know what? We’re going to get 2,000 surveys by this time, and you just have these numbers that might be in touch with reality or not but thinking about the capacity of the folks who are actually doing it, thinking about the labor that is required to complete those surveys or whatever questionnaires or sessions like Ms. Lisa is talking about, thinking of those schedules to attend, to want to give you that time and attention. What are you also offering as you think about the resources, so food, always having food at sessions, always have some other incentive at those gatherings beyond resources was something that was—I wanted to adapt every single time like what do you want as incentives, what do you need as incentives so, yeah, that’s on mine, it’s timelines, adaptable timelines, moving at the speed of trust.

Courtney W. Robertson: Absolutely, and that was actually a question I meant to ask you earlier and I was like let me just either wait for it to come back up or I’m going to find a way to put it in but I was curious about—because I know a lot of people have wondered what does the time commitment look like or what is a timeframe or timeline look like for the process so it sounds like it’s not standard by any means, and it really is based on—it sounds like sometimes just might be what the topic is, sort of like how you’re able to engage people. You get the right people in place that have not—like making sure that that’s solid first before you’ll be able to move forward with the process so could you all talk a bit more about sort of how you approach establishing a timeline around this, what a typical timeline might be?

Dr. Nnenna Odim: Yeah, so we started out with a training first that was four sessions that looked at just research questions, historical relevance to research, how expertise has been orienting, orientated or oriented before situated previously just to get grounded in what research has been, and then talking about PAR specifically, talking about what type of methods happen in PAR like interviews, surveys, photo stories, different methods that can be included in this time, and then there was a month of now you engage your project. Whatever research question you have decided, they planned out, and we were honest about like, all right, in a week how much time do you actually have to give to this research project? Be realistic with yourself and with your body, and then I’ll check in with you and see about how that’s going. So it was about a month of research, and it was free for them to do whenever throughout the day and check in and have phone call check-ins, and then we come back and do a collective analysis together after that month.

Courtney W. Robertson: Got you. But then you’re holding that flexible is what I’m hearing. You’re like shaking your head like absolutely. I think that’s one of the constraints like both as you think about both like research but also as you think about grants and things like that that are just always these very hard sort of timelines which timelines and deadlines are important, right? Because if we don’t have it, things are just open but also to your point, being able to be flexible particularly when you’re working with community, right? Because to you point, there are so many other factors that come into play. This isn’t people’s jobs, right? People have nine-to-fives or, you know, five-to-nines or whatever you want to do

Dr. Nnenna Odim: And it can be seven to three, seven to four, seven to five.

Courtney W. Robertson: Right, right, so just really being able to be flexible, adaptable, and accommodating within the process so that you get the best outcome versus like just an outcome.

Dr. Nnenna Odim: I do want to name too that there is a spectrum of PAR like there’s a group, Herr and Anderson, that have kind of a clear spectrum that we adapted for Beloved that thinks about all the ways you can engage community, involve community, where some of it is co-option, some of it’s compliance, some of it’s consulting, some of it is cooperation but we were aiming to sit in the collective action pretty often which means that the community is deciding pretty consistently at each step design, checking back in. So that is part of why we were so adaptable. It’s like for many of the researchers, they are researchers, they went on past that month and have been going on now a year or two years, and so I think that leaving that flexibility early on with trust and relationships, authentic trust and relationships allows for the growth to happen.

Courtney W. Robertson: Thank you for that. So I want to sort of position this in the context of where most of our listeners are coming from so most of our listeners are engaged in collaborative work. There is some type of collaboration whether it’s using the collective impact approach or not, they’re working together across different organizations, sectors, etc., so why would you say that this particular approach, participatory action research, why that should be of interest to folks who are working collaboratively?

Dr. Nnenna Odim: I think that collaboration looks different in many communities and if you’re genuinely aiming to make change, change systems, acknowledging the nuances in community and collaboration is how I see research. That it is adaptable to the community’s needs, that it allows you to be honest about your own individual work while working with community so it is not just about community members learning but it’s about how everyone involved is learning, and where there are privileges, where there is expertise is woven together so it’s not just an either/or or a hierarchy around whose knowledge is most important but collaboration is it for me, and in this experience with PAR researchers, it is I’m learning so much about myself, about relationships, about honesty and transparency, and around limits too. Around being able to name when you see someone who is hurting or when you see that it is maybe too much, the boundaries are too much for them, and so being honest with that, around our inner work as researchers, our work together that’s collaborative, that is collective. I do think justice is about collective action, and so I think collaboration must be about collective action too. So that is why someone who is thinking about collaboration might take on work in participatory action research. It’s because it allows you to grow while growing together, growing collaboratively.

Courtney W. Robertson: I love that, and we often get folks who ask about what are some ways to engage community,right? I think we often think about those more traditional routes which are great but this to me, as I think about participatory action research, just truly does center community and not just in the way that’s like one time or just because it’s one thing, right, but you can really create like these continuous engagement points and feedback loops that sort of serves as a checks and balances around the work that you say you’re doing in service of community so really love that.

Dr. Nnenna Odim: Yeah, and it grows, it grows, it grows. As we’ve been talking about what can happen after this grant or how can we build so that it’s not just a stop when the money stops but how do we make sure that we find ways to sustain this long term because the power is there so that’s what exciting to me about PAR. It’s not just the like one and done. This is an ongoing practice of researching with community.

Courtney W. Robertson: So for those who are interested, or I think they’ve listened to this conversation and are like we want to think about how we incorporate PAR into our work, right? What would you say they should consider? What should they be thinking about? So folks may or may not have a traditional researcher on their—within their organization, right? It might just be a collaborative trying to just figure things out. What would you say they should be considering and what would be like a really solid first step for them to take?

Peggy Patterson: First, they need to move. Whatever their passion is, that will be first so what topic would you pick but also to reach out to Dr. O so she can explain exactly what PAR is and take it from there.

Dr. Nnenna Odim: I mean I am always excited about brainstorming with folks so absolutely I’m down to brainstorm together if folks genuinely see the power in communities, if that is the priority. Of course, my email we will include in this, and Beloved’s website is another way to check out, NOLA C.A.R.E.S.’s website. The collaborative is doing a lot of beautiful work. Our social media is another one.

But I agree with you about acknowledging where the organization is in their relationship with community, and being honest about that is crucial because whoever you connect with will lean onto that relationship that you’ve had before with the community.

In the beginning of NOLA C.A.R.E.S. in fact actually there was a lot of questions around like how are you going to be different than researchers have come out in the community and asked for information and then we never heard from them again? And so if you’re planning to do something similar, then PAR maybe is not aligned with the work that you’re thinking about as an organization but if you genuinely see the power in community, I am down to brainstorm.

Courtney W. Robertson: You heard it here, folks. Dr. O is offering her services. But, no, I loved this. It sounds like first being clear about what community engagement means to your organization or to your collaborative, right? And then from there being truthful about and acknowledging like what is our relationship with community and if it’s not the greatest relationship, how do we get to a point where you can be, deepening their understanding the PAR approach because we only have so much time today to talk but I’m sure there’s lots of literature and things that folks can dive into to deeper their understanding around that, and then being really honest and reflective again about their individual work as well is what I’m hearing from you all. Beautiful, and then you can hit up Dr. O, right, if you can go through all those things. Beautiful.

Just, one, I want to thank you all for this conversation but any parting thoughts from you also? Anything that I didn’t ask that you think is worth uplifting for the listeners?

Peggy Patterson: PAR is like family because you meet people and you form relationships, and also with doing the work you have to be accountable. You have to be honest, and you have to have a stick-to-it-ness even when, you know, because sometimes you may not want to do it but if you made that commitment to do it, then you need to come through with it.

Dr. Nnenna Odim: I do want to mention that this was generously funded by J.P. Morgan, this work, specifically NOLA C.A.R.E.S., and so we’re thankful that we’ve had the flexibility. So funders trusting the organizations who are engaging PAR to build the relationships, to have relationships already in the community is something that I’m ever thankful for, that we had the funders who were flexible and trusted us to trust community.

Courtney W. Robertson: Ms. Lisa?

Lisa Williams: Also you need to be the voice. You need to be that voice to make the difference in your community if that’s what you’re searching for. Be that voice.

Courtney W. Robertson: I think that’s such a powerful note to end on, be that voice, and this is one of the ways in which you can do it. I want to thank you ladies again so much, Dr. O, Ms. Peggy, Ms. Lisa. Thank you so much for your gifts of expertise, knowledge, and time today, and I want to thank our listeners for your continued support of the Collective Impact Forum podcast.

And this closes out this episode of the Collective Impact Forum podcast. If you are interested in learning more about what was discussed, you can find links to resources in the footnotes for this episode. And if you’re enjoying all that we share at the Collective Impact Forum podcast, we encourage you to rate us on your preferred podcast platform, and share your favorite episodes with colleagues.

We would like to acknowledge that this episode was produced and edited on the unceded, traditional lands of the Coast Salish people, including the Duwamish, Suquamish, Stillaguamish, and Muckleshoot tribes. We honor with gratitude the land itself and the past, present, and futures of these tribes.

The Intro music for this episode was composed by Rafael Krux and our outro music is composed by Kevin Macleod.

In Forum news, we’re excited to share that registration is now open for the 2024 Collective Impact Action Summit, that will be held online this April 30-May 2, 2024. It’s our biggest learning event of the year, featuring over 25 virtual sessions, and sharing out best practices from collaboratives from across the U.S. and globally. And we’re excited to announce that our closing keynote will be with political leader and changemaker Stacey Abrams that will discuss the power of movement building.  Please visit our events section at if you would like to join the 2024 Collective Impact Action Summit.

This is Tracy Timmons-Gray, Associate Director here at the Collective Impact Forum, and your podcast producer. I want to say thank you so much for listening, and we look forward to connecting with you more in our next episode. Until next time, let’s keep working towards collective impact.


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