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Good Science

Principles of community-based participatory research

Across the country, Environmental Justice communities are faced with an urgency to address life-threatening pollution and health assaults. The survival of these communities has long been jeopardized by a legacy of unequal protection and scarce resources and capacity. Adding insult to injury, community-initiated efforts to improve their health and environment have often been hindered by scientific experts and expert agencies.

One of the strategies employed by communities under toxic assault is to “bring in the experts”—that is, to convince federal agencies, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or local experts to use the technical methods of science to address the community’s concerns. Unfortunately, such efforts at “collaboration” have often resulted in the community being left out of decision-making, delays in addressing the problem, and findings that do more to roil the situation than to improve the environment in which people live.

A good example of this phenomenon is the implementation of Community Advisory Groups (CAGS) by regional offices of the EPA. Too often, CAGS have been comprised of professionals and others who were removed from the immediate impacts of environmental pollution, which had the effect of excluding from decision-making those who were primarily affected by toxics. In other instances, sham organizations have been formed by both public and private entities to direct activities done in the name of impacted communities in order to apply for grant monies. Another strategy have been the formation of alliances, in some instances with community people, in order to neutralize their involvement.

Given that the national research institutions have been far too meek in making the linkage between environmental exposures and poor health, the potential power of science to assist communities has been limited. For instance, communities across the country have accused the Agency for Toxic Substance Disease Registry (ATSDR) of being inconclusive by design. Assessments by this and other scientific agencies frequently conclude that exposure to a level of chemical and/or toxic metal found in a given community is not likely to result in bad health effects. However, even when such chemicals are present in a community and residents’ illnesses mirror potential health effects of those chemicals, the tendency of the EPA, ATSDR, state regulatory agencies, and health departments is to downplay potential associations between exposures and adverse health outcomes, and to resist taking precautionary action to address the concerns of community residents.

Risk assessment methods used by the regulatory agencies are often to blame. However, there are other contributing factors. I believe that the current “top down” research model has narrowed the scope of scientific research and robbed it of crucial knowledge. In this approach, only the knowledge of the formally trained expert is considered valid and reality is described by empirical and testable results. Those that are affected by a given problem are by definition “biased” and therefore their views are considered suspect or are outright discounted. In this paradigm of scientific inquiry, the voices of those experiencing the problem are excluded and consequently, science (scientists) misses data (experiences) that describe a deeper and more expansive understanding of the problem.

A New Paradigm: CBPR

An effective model of research that can compensate for the shortcomings of traditional top-down, outsider-dominated environmental and health research is community-based participatory research, or CBPR. CBPR provides the Environmental Justice community with an opportunity to build a new research paradigm. Simply put, CBPR is a method that brings the knowledge and expertise of communities together with that of formally trained researchers to find answers or to intervene to address a problem or concern. CBPR combines research with action. Under the CBPR framework, the collaboration of communities and experts must be equitable, transparent, and ethically sound, and stem from community-articulated problems. The critical component in any CBPR project is the creation of a fully participatory partnership between community members and technically trained providers and investigators that produces “good science,” and promotes community-defined problem solving.

11-2 Good Science

I first learned about CBPR from the Southeast Community Research Center (SCRC), a south-wide center based in Atlanta where I now work as the programs and partnership coordinator. As I learned more about CBPR, I immediately thought about the countless communities with which I have worked over the past 15 years. They were frustrated with health assessments and health studies conducted in their communities, and disappointed with the failure of experts to link pollutants and prevalent sicknesses and deaths in their communities. I recognized that CBPR could be a systematic way to find the answers to questions and the solutions to problems relating to health, the environment, and to social and economic marginalization.

Through the SCRC, I’m now working on building partnerships in rural communities in Alabama to eliminate health disparities; with communities in Georgia to address environmental health; and in Mississippi where a broad coalition of community leaders, health and environmental researchers have devised and begun to implement a community-wide strategy for health equity and justice. The SCRC is also building partnerships with Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and communities throughout the South to address health disparities. There are now eight researcher/community partnerships, based on CBPR principles, under development to address the horrible health outcomes experienced by African Americans in Georgia, Alabama and Jackson, Mississippi. (For information, visit the SCRC website at

In this work, SCRC finds that when the strengths and resources of both technical experts and community experts are brought to bear, new and productive avenues open up for understanding problems and the development and implementation of solutions. Unlike conventional research methods, which discount the knowledge of the non-expert, we find that our efforts produce a fuller statement of the problem, generate new and innovative solutions, and result in fuller participation by all involved.

Community Dialogue Sessions
The SCRC CBPR process begins with community Dialogue Sessions because marginalized communities too often do not have the resources to come together in facilitated and documented dialogue about community health and other problems. The Dialogue Sessions provide the space for community members and groups to come together to define and document the issues that they want to address. In subsequent Dialogue Sessions, community members learn how to use their expertise in a CBPR format—what might be termed “CBPR 101.” Popular Education methods are utilized to promote organic involvement of the community as the first step to community problem identification and solving, and to ensure that power is located and enhanced in the community.

The Community Dialogue Ssessions is the foundation that ensures communities come to the table prepared to systematically state and stand for their views and experiences as the project takes shape. While this process does not eliminate the resource and power divide, it puts it squarely on the table for discussion and problem solving.

Partnership Building
The overwhelming majority of environmental justice community groups are grossly under-resourced. The resource dearth materially diminishes a community’s readiness to utilize effective strategies. When marginalized communities do not have the capacity to participate fully in community/research partnerships, they are vulnerable to distortion of their view of the problem and a real solution. Through the development of structured partnerships, which recognize and address systemic power imbalances and require an agreed-upon structure that deals with both the technical and political elements of partnerships, community power is protected.

The Dialogue Sessions are followed by joint community/ researcher workshops. In these workshops, analysis of the advantages of partnerships and the barriers to achieving effective partnerships are explored, culminating in the development of principles that serve as a framework for an equitable partnership as defined by the community. In addition, reports from the Community DS are reviewed and concerns are prioritized. The workshops are followed by the establishment of community and multi-disciplinary research teams to pursue CBPR projects that develop research questions and interventions, and plan for fundraising.

Tool for Change
CBPR is not the panacea for poor and marginalized communities: political power and social and economic justice are the goals we must reach if we want a society in which the children of every neighborhood can play and live in a healthy environment. However, CBPR is one more tool, and a potentially effective one, for communities to employ to fight for the health and well-being of their neighborhoods. The skepticism about research in the Environmental Justice community must be addressed. We have been “studied to death,” yet many communities never reach an understanding of the full impact of pollution on the public health and quality of life.

Science and technology are powerful tools, but our current inability to employ them fully and holistically limits their use and effectiveness. CBPR provides an invaluable opportunity to deliver truly “good science,”—science that helps us determine ways to understand and improve our health and quality of life.

Connie Tucker, an activist for more than 30 years, became a leader in the EJ Movement in its early stages and served for 11 years as director of the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic and Social Justice, one of the five major grassroots EJ networks. She presently serves as the programs and partnership coordinator for Southeast Community Research Center (SCRC) in Atlanta.

Douglas Taylor, Ph.D., is the founder and director of SCRC. His research focuses on ethics in science and methods to democratize decision-making on scientific and technical questions, particularly on health and environment topics.