Graph documenting typical displacement process.
Byline: Barbara Osborn, Ph.D.
It's a cliche that academic research takes place mostly in musty libraries and ivory towers with little or no social relevance. Years ago, the legendary Chicago organizer Saul Alinsky called academics “irrelevant.”
More recently, a growing cadre of academic researchers have wanted to prove Alinsky wrong and put their research in service of ending society’s injustices through community-based participatory research. A good case study of this new wave of nitty-gritty real-life research is the approach taken at Liberty Hill's Wally Marks Leadership Institute for Change.
This spring, three community groups were selected to participate in the Leadership Institute Research Track and, with the assistance of USC graduate reseachers, designed and executed important studies that are making strategic contributions to social justice goals.
We're talking specific tangible efforts to increase job opportunities, protect affordable housing, and promote family acceptance of lesbian and gay individuals in Los Angeles.
Problem: The victory won by Los Angeles Black Worker Center (BWC) when L.A County agreed to a Project Labor Agreement was momentous but hard to enforce. There was no government staff to monitor the agreement requiring a certain percentage of jobs on a development project go to local low-income people of color. How could BWC make sure contractors obey the law?
Problem: The L.A. City Council Planning and Land Use Management committee would soon be considering USC's MasterPlan, and the community group Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) foresaw negative consequences for low income families currently living near USC. What proof could SAJE gather?
Problem: Many members of Asian Pacific Islanders for LGBT Equality (APIE-LA) were grappling with difficulties arising from family members failing to accept them. Given that API communities in Southern California have diverse and distinctive cultural norms, how could the group zero in on ways to help members advocate for themselves among their closest relatives?
These are the problems that the Wally Marks Leadership Institute Research Track tackled in partnership with USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism. Graduate student research teams worked with Black Worker Center, API Equality and SAJE to define the research question, collect the data and analyze the findings.
- Black Worker Center developed a "Compliance “Report Card,” the first such community-monitoring instrument to track construction projects. It's an inexpensive way to measure compliance to the Project Labor Agreement including public access to hiring reports, community relations, access, transparency, and diversity.
- API Equality-LA created the first-ever survey of family dynamics and coming out among Chinese-American lesbians and gays. Findings led to refinements in API Equality’s new programs designed to support API LGBTs who want to come out to their families and reinforced the importance of reaching out to Chinese language media to encourage them to provide more balanced portrayals of LGBT issues in the news media.
- Strategic Actions for a Just Economy compiled detailed profiles of individuals and families who were in imminent danger of displacement or who had already been displaced in the area around USC. The goal was to make visible families that “disappear” when gentrification takes place and make the costs to those families and to the community clear to the City Council committee set to review the MasterPlan.
The compliance report card is being piloted this summer by Black Worker Center to track hiring. The research for API Equality is being incorporated into a series of coming out workshops. The research on displaced residents is part of this month's presentation by SAJE at the Planning Land Use Management Committee hearing.
The Wally Marks Leadership Institute Research Track grew out of a doctoral seminar called "Research, Practice and Social Change" that I teach with Sandra Ball-Rokeach at USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism. One of the things that we learned in conducting class over the last five years was that there were many community nonprofits that were not organizationally ready to handle a research project of this type.
They would express interest but be unable to manage the challenges of identifying a meaningful question, subject their hypothesis to actual research findings, and be prepared to act on the findings in a way that would support their overall campaign or organizational goals.
But by rigorously vetting organizations for the Wally Marx Leadership Institute, Liberty Hill identifies groups that are in fact ready to grow and be challenged in this way and makes successful university-community partnerships possible.