I’ve had this cartoon (below) on my office wall for years. I like its cheeky commentary on how wealth relies upon poverty for its existence, and how the rich are generally oblivious to that fact.
But mostly, in my office, the cartoon plays a cautionary role. It reminds me what kind of researcher I don’t want to be. It’s not just that his gender, clothing, skin colour, and portly physique mark the cartoon researcher as a member of the rich guy’s club. More than anything, it’s his eyes that scare me – so shrewdly focused on the numbers on his ruler, they don’t see the person right in front of him.
It’s a painfully true and humbling caricature of the researcher as bystander. I learned about the bystander role in a graduate course on the ethics of witnessing trauma, but these days, even my school-age kids are taught in their anti-bullying curriculum that the bystander is almost as bad as the bully. Just as wealth relies upon poverty, bullying relies upon people’s willingness to stand by and allow it to happen.
When I wrote my first article about the ethics of research on women’s homelessness, I was a student. Now that I am paid to do research on homelessness, poverty and social exclusion, I—like many of my colleagues—feel a strong responsibility to reflect on the contradictions of this work. To what extent does it make a difference? Are we bystanders to systemic “bullying”? How can we know that we aren’t just contributing to the problem?
Many of us have reached a similar conclusion: research is most likely to make a difference when it’s done not ABOUT, but ALONGSIDE people facing poverty and homelessness. But doing research in this way raises many challenges and questions as well.
Research that is done by, for and with communities facing exclusion is often referred to as Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR). Though CBPR has been around for decades, it is enjoying something of a renaissance right now, especially in the health sciences. I find it encouraging that many research and advocacy projects focused on women’s homelessness in Canada are using a participatory methodology.
In a report released today on Homeless Hub, Janet Mosher and I share what we learned from a panel of experts involved with some of these projects. With travel funding from the Canadian Homelessness Research Network, they came together at a conference to discuss the ideals of CBPR, their experiences undertaking it, and their recommendations for how research can contribute to action on women’s homelessness. These experts, all of whom are women facing homelessness, brought unique insights to evaluating the strengths of CBPR and addressing its weaknesses.
The report considers CBPR from the perspective of women facing homelessness who have been involved in it as participants, “peer” researchers, activists or service providers who use research. All agreed that CBPR on homelessness and poverty must lead to action, and that people with lived experience have a vital role to play in this process. As one expert said, “It’s important that women are part of the team. Our knowledge and skills and strengths may be different than a university professor’s, but it’s important to acknowledge that experience. That is what will turn into action.”
At the same time, women pointed out, entrenched inequities in power and authority mean that institutions and professionals usually reap more of the benefits from research, even when it’s CBPR. In the words of one CBPR participant, “The University gets the money and funding to do it, they get the recognition for the ideas and questions, when women came up with it at the kitchen table of a drop-in.”
Researchers with lived experience hold a strong sense of responsibility for participants’ well-being, for honouring participants’ contributions through advocacy and action, and for ensuring that research funds are well-spent on worthwhile projects. “Lived experience researchers become advocates because we know the experience,” explained one peer researcher from a university-based project. If CBPR is to live up to these responsibilities, projects need to provide the training, resources, skills and power that community members need to use research products for action.
In the end, women want allies in the academy to think carefully about the worth of proposing new research, when so much research has already been done on poverty and oppression. "Stop repeated projects," insisted one expert. "We need to look at all the research that has been done and is going to be done, and implement it. Take the story, take the needs, and DO something."