When I began my dissertation work in a public housing development in Chicago, one of the things I encountered was a general distrust of researchers from universities. The distrust was justified: since the 1980’s academics have been coming and going from public housing throughout Chicago with very little thought to way their presence impacted the lives of residents.
Academics frequently would build relationships with the individuals they interviewed over the course of months, and then disappear never to be seen again. Very rarely are residents privy to what was written or shared about their life experiences. But occasionally, a woman would tell me about a book or article she encountered that depicted her friends and neighbors as culturally deviant or a welfare queen. Time and time again, when I introduced myself to residents, the initial reaction was one of distrust, fear and at times, even sadness.
At the core, residents were made to feel like zoo animals in their own home. Poked, prodded and observed for a time, before the academic would move on to another.
So the central question is: as academics, what protocols need to be put in place to ensure communities of color are treated fairly and equitably? Below, find a couple of initial suggestions.
1. Be clear and upfront with every respondent, organization and/or neighborhood you engage about how long you plan to be present. Come up with a clear entrance and exit strategy before entering the community, and communicate this with everyone you meet. While some academics might object that this could somehow “taint” their research. I firmly believe that by setting boundaries around what individuals can expect from you, you are setting yourself up for more authentic and trusting relationships with respondents.
2. Pay your respondents. You are taking up a significant amount of their time, their time is just as precious as anyone else’s. Having the opportunity to “talk” about their challenges is not sufficient payment. Pay (ideally in cash), every time.
3. Be attentive to the way in which you speak to people. Unfortunately I can’t teach you how to approach folks with humility and respect, over the internet. However, it is important to remember that by participating in your research project (regardless of whether or not they are getting paid), the respondents are doing you a favor.
I could go on and on about this, but I think this is a good start. As time goes on I will continue to write about conducting research in communities of color, as well as communities living below the poverty line. In the meantime, what additional questions do you all have?
Let me know in the comments.