what are scholars’ responsibilities to the communities we study?
I am delighted to serve as a guest blogger on orgtheory.net. I have been meaning to get into the blogging game for quite some time. I am an avid reader of various blogs, and I always wondered about people who had the pluck to release their thoughts to the internet world, without the benefit of editors, peer reviewers, and the scads of people that we rehearse our arguments in front of during academic conferences. So here I am, taking up the challenge and coming to you weekly for the next month.
I have to admit, I found myself with competing pulls today as my ‘to do’ list seemed to be growing instead of shrinking. In addition to writing this blog, I am also preparing to speak to an Illinois-based group of HIV/AIDS activists and service providers about my research. I am currently conducting a study of the economic and social survival strategies of a racially and socioeconomically diverse group of women living with HIV/AIDS in Chicago. With the 30th Anniversary of some of the first documented cases of HIV/AIDS upon us, it is definitely a time for reflection on the epidemic, the medical and social advances made in our understanding of the disease, and the long way we still have to go in eradicating the epidemic.
But in fact, I am frequently asked to give presentations on my HIV research to what scholars call, “the community,” the group of people actually living, speaking up about, fighting for, and fighting against the particular phenomenon that we study.
It raises the question: what are our responsibilities as scholars to the communities we study?
Robert Greenleaf coined the term, “servant-leader,” in his 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader.” Greenleaf argued that servant-leaders dedicate considerable attention to the needs of individuals within their organizations and as a result, see considerable results. They are humble stewards of an institution’s human capital, financial resources, and time, bringing a myriad of skills to what they do: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community. Many other leadership and management writers would come to expand upon Greenleaf’s initial concept.
Community-based research places one in the role of servant-scholar. It is the marriage of one’s passion for social justice with a deep and abiding commitment to rigorous scholarly inquiry. It means climbing an analytic mountain (or in some cases, plunging into an investigative abyss) while upholding a promise to return to base camp with information about what was out there, told in an accessible and usable format.
When I began studying HIV/AIDS, I participated in a three-summer training program at The Center for AIDS Prevention Studies (CAPS) at the University of California- San Francisco. One of the things that I greatly appreciate about my training at CAPS was its strong encouragement to formalize the engagement that our projects would have with the communities we were studying. Per their suggestion, I created a Community Advisory Board (CAB), a group of women living with HIV/AIDS as well as activists and service providers working on HIV-related issues. We meet regularly both as a group and individually so that I can update them on my research, solicit their feedback, and hear how I can be useful to them in the work that they do. Community members often appreciate and enjoy being asked to participate in the various steps of the research process. My research team sees CAB members as experts who have experiential knowledge that is crucial for us to incorporate for a comprehensive analysis. In many ways, the CAB operates as our study’s board of directors, helping to set the strategic direction of the project by amplifying the vision for the research and ensuring that we are connected to the appropriate people and places in the community that will drive the analytic rigor and practical usefulness of the project. As a result of my study’s Community Advisory Board and my insistence to accept just about every invitation to share my HIV/AIDS research with just about any group who will have me, I am quite busy as a servant-scholar.
Every servant-scholar has to make a decision about the level of engagement that one will have with the community she/he is researching and how much input that community will have on research study design and execution. In the most intensive forms of Community Participatory Research, community members work with researchers to formulate the research questions, select appropriate methods, create strategies for analysis, and come up with a results dissemination plan. I have even seen a few instances in which community members become data gatherers themselves by becoming trained interviewers and even co-present findings.
To be sure, being a servant-scholar takes work. I closely guard the reputation or “brand” of my research project to ensure that my research team and I are trusted and respected for the expertise that we bring, but I am also careful not to promise to have all the answers. It requires us to master the scholarly literature that we are trying to engage, the subject area we are studying, and the local politics that drive the happenings when we are in and out of our field site on any given day.
Being a servant-scholar also takes a fair amount of time. We have existing commitments to our universities and the larger scholarly community. Being servant-scholars requires us to add yet another constituency, the community that we are studying. Each group makes serious demands on our time.
Finally, being a servant-scholar takes people skills. One’s personality, style of interacting with others, and ability to communicate intellectual ideas in an accessible way are critically important. To the people that you work with in the community, you represent “academics,” the university, and are battling (or riding on) decades of actions from previous researchers who have also promised great payoffs for the research being done, and sometimes not delivered.
I often get the question of how feasible it is to be a servant-scholar, especially as a graduate student or assistant professor. My answer is simple: parallel tracks. If you are publishing in high quality venues, regularly presenting your work to scholarly audiences, and offering strong teaching, you have a great deal of freedom. Even as an assistant professor, I was never challenged for my extensive community work, whether it was my engagement with respondents and other community members in the course of research, serving on the board of directors of a local non-profit, or writing public opinion pieces for a general audience. I firmly believe that what protected me, and eventually led to colleagues seeing my community work as a strength rather than a diversion, was my commitment to ensuring that I hit the traditional academic benchmarks. Publishing, it seems, is our ticket to the autonomy to be servant-scholars.
And with ticket in hand, it’s hard to imagine a more rewarding professional ride.