Dean’s Lecture: Participatory Research Approaches in the Context of Structural Racism

January 25, 2022 @ 5:55 pm

Dr. Linda Sprague Martinez demonstrated how involving community groups as equal partners in research projects can create more equitable outcomes.

Structural racism permeates social work research, just as it does every aspect of society, says Dr. Linda Sprague Martinez, Chair of Macro Practice and Associate Professor at the Boston University School of Social Work. To mitigate its effects on social work research, Dr. Sprague Martinez advocates for the use of community-based participatory research (CBPR).

As she explained in her December 16 lecture, CBPR builds upon the expertise, resources, and strengths that already exist in a community, making the researcher and the community members collaborators and co-learners. This is a departure from traditional research models, where a researcher equipped with a grant and university credentials dictates what response would best resolve a community issue. In eschewing a top-down research mode, CBPR can produce research that is attentive to inequities in health, employment, and other areas where this model is used.

To be successful, Dr. Sprague Martinez argues, CBPR requires mutual trust. Researchers must take the time to develop relationships and recognize the distrust communities may have developed toward universities. She shared the example of two Boston-area projects in which researchers partnered with community groups to address traffic-related air pollution. A successful CBPR project, she said, offers mutual benefits, leading not just to publications and funding for scientists but to stronger bonds between community groups.

In a question-and-answer session moderated by Dr. Rob Eschmann, Associate Professor at Columbia School of Social Work, Dr. Sprague Martinez delved further into the nuts and bolts of how to present CBPR projects to grantors and institutional review boards, how to be transparent in working with communities and publishing data, and how social work researchers can mesh the slower pace of CBPR projects with the timeline of their own career objectives. 

Some words from Dr. Sprague Martinez:

“Who gets to ask the questions? Who gets to interpret the findings? Who gets to tell the story?”

“The worst thing you can do is go to a community agency and get a grant and then not do the action. Make sure everyone is getting their needs met.”

“Anything you do in partnership, the more people you add to anything, it takes a little bit longer… At the same time, it makes it richer. The richer the data, the more perspectives we’re able to bring.”

“White supremacy is designed to divide us. It’s designed to silo us. It’s designed to say, ‘You’re the expert. You have the power.’ But really we all have to own [power] collectively.”

“If we’re going to find and create a new world, we have to start working more together.”

Dean Melissa Begg, who hosted the lecture, commented, “You’re demonstrating how partnering equitably with communities can lead to so much greater insight and learning when we don’t limit ourselves to more traditional approaches.”

About the Lecture Series

The Dean’s Lecture Series on Inequality and Opportunity features prominent scholars who will address the complex system of racist and oppressive policies and practices that result in inequities, including a focus on disparities in health, education, economic opportunity, and employment outcomes.

Watch the full lecture here: