The George Butler Lecture Social Justice and Leisure: The Usefulness and Uselessness of Research

By Garcia, Robert | Journal of Leisure Research, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

The George Butler Lecture Social Justice and Leisure: The Usefulness and Uselessness of Research


Garcia, Robert, Journal of Leisure Research


The topic of this Butler Lecture is how to translate research through advocacy to seek equal access to parks and recreation and better health for all. The challenge in Los Angeles is this: Children of color living in poverty with limited access to a car have the worst access to parks and physical activity, to schools with five acres or more of playing fields, and to physical education in public schools. These children suffer disproportionately from obesity and diabetes and are the most at risk for gangs, crime, drugs, and violence (Garcia & Strongin, 2011; Garcia & Fenwick, 2009). Research has documented similar patterns in other regions in the state and nation (Maroko, Maantay, Sohler, Grady, & Arno, 2009; Snyder & Sickmund, 2006; Alleyne & LaPoint, 2004).

Six strategies are relevant to address this challenge:

First, good research. This is usually necessary, but seldom if ever sufficient, to achieve systemic change.

* Second, coalition building and organizing based on diverse values.

* Third, strategic media campaigns.

* Fourth, policy and legal advocacy outside the courts.

* Fifth, access to justice through the courts in the context of a broader campaign.

* Sixth, moving beyond "flawless" research.

The best practice examples below illustrate how The City Project, a nonprofit policy and legal advocacy team and its allies have relied on these strategies to seek equal access to parks, physical activity, and better health for all. For example, then-Secretary of Housing Andrew Cuomo withheld federal subsidies for a proposed warehouse project in the last, vast, 32-acre open space in downtown Los Angeles unless there was full environmental review that considered the park alternative and impacts on people of color. The site could have been warehouses. Instead, it's now a park. The Los Angeles Times Magazine called the community victory "a heroic monument" and a "symbol of hope" (Ricci, 2001). Advocates "organized a civil rights challenge that claimed the [warehouse] project was the result of discriminatory land-use policies that had long deprived minority neighborhoods of parks" (Sanchez, 2001).

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Equal protection laws and principles that guarantee equal access to public resources and prohibit discrimination based on race, color, or national origin provide a framework for evaluating access to parks and physical activity. This framework can guide not only the research but the other strategies as well. The legal aspects of environmental justice are often not addressed in social science research on social justice and active living, but they should be.

Good Research Is Central

First, a word on the politics of research and advocacy. The American Heritage Dictionary defines "research" as "1. Scholarly or scientific investigation or inquiry" and "2. Close, careful study." "Advocacy" is the "act of pleading or arguing in favor of something, such as a cause, idea, or policy; active support."

Sometimes, there can be too great an emphasis on "disinterested, objective, academic" research, double-blind studies, P values, statistical significance, or the risks of generalizing. There may be a concern that advocacy "taints" research. Some academics quaintly refer to attorneys as "practitioners." The skepticism with which some academics view practitioners is matched only by the skepticism with which some practitioners view academics. Advocacy and both kinds of research are valuable and necessary and offer opportunities for successful collaboration.

Researchers and advocates can make great partners. As Harold Goldstein (2009) has emphasized in translating healthy eating research into policy, "Not once in 5 years did a legislator ask for research to prove that banning soda and junk food sales on school campuses would reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity" (p. S17).

The Legal Framework Can Guide Research

Because there are disparities in access to parks, physical activity, and health, equal protection laws and principles offer a legal, evidentiary, and strategic framework for the kinds of research that are necessary to improve access for all. …

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