Ten years ago, cities in L.A. County and across the country were making it illegal to solicit work on the street. The laws targeted day laborers who stood on street corners hoping to be picked up on construction jobs. It was my first in-depth experience working with Liberty Hill grantees and I was trying to help Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights Los Angeles (CHIRLA) and Instituto de Educacion Popular del Sur del California (IDEPSCA), who were organizing day laborers to get positive news media coverage.
There could scarcely be two groups of people who understood each other less than the press and the day laborers. The press – mostly monolingual English speaking white men in jackets and ties with college educations and bank accounts, and day laborers– mostly monolingual Spanish speaking Mexican and Central American men with grade school educations. They had crossed the border, leaving wives and children, arrived in L.A. not knowing anyone, with no money, in search of a place to live and a way to get work so they could send money back to their families.
Much of the work I did at the time was gather just enough contextual research so we could go to the press and say, “Hey there are 22,000 day laborers in Los Angeles-- more than any other city in the country. You should cover this because how L.A. addresses this issue will affect the way the rest of the country addresses it.” It wasn’t rocket science. All I was doing was documenting the scale of the story, but those numbers were critical to convincing the press to take the day laborers seriously as sources and “experts” on the issue. Being able to cite those numbers gave them credibility.
That’s when I got interested in research for social justice. So a couple years later when I was asked to develop a doctoral seminar at USC Annenberg on research and social justice with USC Professor Sandra Ball-Rokeach I jumped. I imagined myself leading a vast army of academically-trained researchers to the barricades of social justice!
Seven years later, I would say the vast army never materialized. But each year there are a small group of utterly committed and sophisticated graduate students who sign up for a course unlike any other at the university, one that challenges them to work outside The Ivory Tower’s walls.
The course is now conducted as the Research Track of Liberty Hill’s Wally Marks Leadership Institute. Each spring graduate students become “embedded researchers” working with Liberty Hill grantee organizations on research problems that the grantees have defined. The researchers attend staff meetings, and turn out at rallies and events, in order to understand the culture and goals of the organization as quickly as possible.
Over the course of the semester, researchers help figure out how to gather the data and analyze it. And in most cases, they work with the staff and members to build capacity so that organizations come away from the experience with a greater ability to conduct and use research in future.
This year’s research teams worked with three Liberty Hill grantees:
Shermaine Abad partnered with Alliance for Californians for Community Empowermenttallying the costs of foreclosure in Council District 9. There have been more than 30,000 foreclosures in the district since 2008.
Two Annenberg doctoral students, Chi Zhang and Cynthia Wang, worked with Pilipino Worker Center to develop a survey that PWC member-leaders will use to develop a better understanding of work-related problems facing home healthcare workers as well as to gain insight into how these socially isolated workers communicate so PWC can develop a technologically appropriate strategy for reaching out to them.
Katelyn Leenhouts collaborated with a relatively new affordable housing organization, Housing Long Beach, to develop a survey and compile and analyze data on housing violations and city enforcement processes. This research will be used by Housing Long Beach to inform their next campaign.
This incredible research collaboration between Liberty Hill and USC is the first ongoing partnership between a foundation and a university that trains grantees and researchers in the theory and practice of community based participatory research. For universities eager to bring relevance to the classroom and foundations eager to strengthen grantees’ work, it’s a great model. I’ll be sharing it at foundation conferences in the coming year. Maybe the revolution I imagined is just around the corner!