Bridging Social Science, Policy and Community: Engaged Research

By Armenta, Mika | Chicago Policy Review (Online), August 24, 2018 | Go to article overview

Bridging Social Science, Policy and Community: Engaged Research


Armenta, Mika, Chicago Policy Review (Online)


If you ask a social researcher—psychologist, sociologist, cultural anthropologist—why they chose their profession, you might hear something like, “to help people,” but western social research is sometimes criticized for failing to help those who may need it most: groups on the underside of the power differential. When applied social research is driven by the researcher’s perspective, the result can be a biased, myopic view of a situation where the lived reality of the problem (e.g., police violence or community mental health) is not the researched reality.

University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration Assistant Professor Yanilda González strives to understand the problem from the perspective of the people and communities she studies.

“To do ethical research, we must engage with those we call ‘subjects,’” González said.

A political scientist and human rights activist, González is an engaged scholar. Her research and practice share a target: the consequences of inequality and state violence in marginalized communities of the Americas. In May 2018, she organized Grief as Resistance II: Violence, Trauma, and Resilience in Colombia and Chicago, a meeting that brought together academics, social workers and members of the affected communities to discuss their shared goal of reducing violence and achieving justice.

“I strive to first, let people speak for themselves, and second, use the institutional spaces I occupy—in this case within universities—to create opportunities, institutions and resources where the people who are directly affected by the issues I study can share their experiences and advance their work,” said González.

She believes that the community members at Grief as Resistance II—mothers of victims of state-sponsored violence in Colombia and Chicago—were the most important element of the meeting.

“The point [is that] the mothers influence our research. The mothers have been my teachers; they are activists and often researchers too.”

According to Baum and colleagues (2006) and Goodkind and colleagues (2015), community-engaged approaches have been effective in marginalized communities where, despite good intentions, research may not address the problems it targets, and communities may not trust researchers.

Lack of trust is a problem in marginalized communities such as those of American Indians and Black residents of Chicago’s South Side where years of racism and colonization give rise to disparities in access to mental health treatment and protection against state violence.

“Nobody will understand,” said Dorothy Holmes, an invited panelist at Grief as Resistance. She is the mother of Ronald Johnson III, who was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer on Oct. 12, 2014. He was 25 years old and a father of five.

After her son’s death, Holmes founded the nonprofit RonnieMan Foundation, which seeks to reduce state corruption and violence while strengthening the community where Johnson died.

Among the foundation’s initiatives is the Justice 4 RonnieMan school supply drive, which will be celebrated on Sunday, Aug. 26, in Chicago’s Washington Park.

“I wish I had more mothers to see where I’m coming from,” Holmes said. “The city offers you money, but you can’t go to the cemetery and say ‘Here’s the money; bring my child back.’ You asked me why I do what I do. It’s to bring awareness of what happened to my son, and to other mothers.”

Through her research-activist relationships, Holmes is acting on these goals by traveling to tell her son’s story, and she’s discovering that it isn’t his alone. …

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