Why Am I Always Being Researched?

Why Am I Always
Being Researched? 

A guidebook for community organizations, researchers, and funders to help us get from insufficient understanding to more authentic truth

“Pictured: Jonte”

This guidebook is based off of one singular premise: if evidence matters, we must care how it gets made.

As an impact investor that backs the fight for youth equity, Chicago Beyond has partnered with and invested in community organizations all working towards providing more equitable access and opportunity to young people across Chicago. In many cases, we have also invested in sizable research projects to help our community partners grow the impact of their work. Our hope is that the research will generate learnings to impact more youth in our city and nationwide, and arm our partners with “evidence” they need to go after more funding for what is working.

Through the course of our investing, another sort of evidence emerged: evidence that the power dynamic between community organizations, researchers, and funders blocks information that could drive better decision-making and fuel more investment in communities most in need. 

This power dynamic creates an uneven field on which research is designed and allows unintended bias to seep into how knowledge is generated. If we do not address the power dynamic in the creation of research, at best, we are driving decision-making from partial truths. At worst, we are generating inaccurate information that ultimately does more harm than good in our communities. This is why we must care about how research is created.

In this publication, we offer “how” we can begin to level the playing field and reckon with unintended bias when it comes to research. Chicago Beyond created this guidebook to help shift the power dynamic and the way community organizations, researchers, and funders uncover knowledge together. It is an equity-based approach to research that offers one way in which we can restore communities as authors and owners. It is based on the steps and missteps of Chicago Beyond’s own experience funding community organizations and research, and the courageous and patient efforts of our partners, the youth they serve, and others with whom we have learned. 

This guide is intended to:

To not only participate in research on their own terms, but to lead it.

This guide, and understanding how other community organizations are using research to serve their justice mission, can help you navigate the risks and make your decision about whether to do research now, or not.

Organizations have said “no” to doing research even where the funding for it was available, for example, because their partners or participants were tired of being researched. If you do decide to participate in research, there are a range of ways to begin. Your research can draw on multiple approaches, depending on where you see benefit in an external perspective or voice, and where your wisdom and capabilities lie. Like all people, individual researchers may be biased towards approaches they are familiar with, and their emphasis on first building trust with your organization will vary. It is important you get informed. Where you feel you can, engage with funders and researchers and speak up. When you do this, you further relationships and mutual accountability. This guide can travel the journey with you.

In recognizing their immense influence and unintended bias in shaping the questions asked, and the inputs used to answer them.

In all cases related to knowledge creation, researchers wield substantial power in shaping the questions asked, and the inputs used to answer them. How research gets done—the approaches, methods, metrics—has a system of assumptions built in. The guide provides a series of questions to push for more equitable approaches to arrive at a more authentic truth.  

Because evidence truly matters, we must care how it is made. The existing power dynamic between community organizations, researchers, and funders is getting in the way of the scale of impact that we, collectively intend. The power dynamics between specific researchers, funders, and community organizations will vary. Some funding, including government grants, will impose restrictions. Some community organizations may feel comfortable asking questions and asserting their perspectives; others may fear that being assertive may jeopardize the opportunity and funding. In all cases, researchers wield substantial power in shaping the questions asked, and the inputs used to answer them.

Depending on the kinds of research you do, your research institution, and your own experience, the action you take will look different.

For example, you may:

    • Reflect individually or engage with your colleagues and institution on biases and how these flow into your research
    • Change how you engage with community to identify research questions and study outcomes
    • Propose timelines for research differently, for example to support trust-building, or to develop survey instruments with community input and community testing
    • Interrogate numbers and stories you lift up, and use different framing in what you publish
    • Evaluate your own work differently, or engage your funder stakeholders differently

Making intentional change can feel messy and uncomfortable. It requires openness to new perspectives and unlearning old ones. It requires shifting power dynamics, departing from how “it has always been done.” Starting from relationship and accountability, researchers can unlock immense creativity, to achieve the promise of what knowledge can yield for communities.

To ask hard questions about their agendas, unlock more meaningful knowledge, and therefore achieve greater impact.

Funders are a driver of the economy of research and evaluation: funding the production of research, incentivizing its creation, shaping its form, consuming its outputs. Government funding is influenced by the evidence philanthropic investments produce. The guide includes questions around history and personal biases, board dynamics, and more, in order to support community partners’ ability to participate in research with full voice.

Individual funders relate to research differently. Some may fund research to generate knowledge for policymakers and other funders on what works and what does not. Others may fund evaluation to assess the impact of their funding, for their or their boards’ own consumption. Still others may fund research in service of a community organization’s growth or to change narratives. Those that do not fund research at all may participate in the research economy by using data to direct their funding or to summarize the impact of their work.

Depending on your particular relationship with research, the action you take to unlock more meaningful knowledge, and therefore greater impact, will look different.

For example, you may:

    • Change the research questions you are willing to fund
    • Fund and set timelines for research differently
    • Issue Requests For Proposals, or RFPs, for research differently or guide and evaluate your evaluators differently
    • Engage with board and staff on internal processes and biases, especially relating to how you use data
    • Interrogate numbers and stories you lift up, and use different framing in what you publish

In all cases, it will require challenging what has “always been done.” This may not be tidy, or comfortable. But starting from accountability and relationship, funders can help to achieve the promise of what knowledge could yield.

Each funder may, in asking the questions throughout the guidebook, find answers appropriate to their own work. Chicago Beyond has shared some of our experience to illustrate.

This guide begins by naming seven inequities held in place by power, and calls out how they get in the way of truth and impact.

With each inequity, there are suggestions for potential ways forward for community organizations, funders, and researchers.

Seven Inequities Held in Place by Power, Seven Opportunities for Change

The work of changing “how it’s always been done” is hard. The most important thing for all of us is human engagement and a continuous effort to check our biases. Making technical changes without this commitment to openness will not work.

Community organizations, researchers, and funders can…
  • Bring awareness to your own biases and assumptions.
  • Start with this commitment and find new ways to relate to each other.

Could we be missing out on community wisdom because conversations about research are happening without community meaningfully present at the table?

Can we effectively partner to get to the full truth if information about research options, methods, inputs, costs, benefits, and risks are not shared?

Could we be accepting partial truths as the full picture, because we are not valuing community organizations and community members as valid experts?

Are we getting incomplete answers by valuing research processes that take from, rather than build up, community ownership?

What value is generated, for whom, and at what cost?

Are we holding funders and researchers accountable if research designs create harm or do not work?

Whose voice is shaping the narrative and is the community fully represented?

Let Us Go Forward, Together

Thank you for your time, consideration, and use of this guidebook. We see it not as a solution, but as a kindling to something greater, and a new path toward “how” we can all arrive at a more authentic truth in research. We ask that you share these questions and ideas with others in the social impact space, and host conversations to address unintended bias and leveling the playing field to do the most good for our communities.

      • Share this with your team and encourage reflection and discussion.
      • Share these principles on social media. Email us at connect@ChicagoBeyond.org for our toolkit.
      • Bring this to your network, in one-on-one conversation with your board members, staff, allies, challengers, and friends.
      • Host an event. Email us at connect@ChicagoBeyond.org to partner with our team and bring this guidebook to your community

Engage in our community of practice. What successes have you had with equity-based research? What has made you uncomfortable, or frustrated you? Send us a note at connect@ChicagoBeyond.org to join the dialogue about our ongoing learning.

We ask you to join us in questioning, wrestling with bias, and pushing against “how it has always been done.” We need to collectively move from insufficient understanding to more authentic truth. The stakes are too high for us to do otherwise. To download a PDF of “Why Am I Always Being Researched?”, please click below.