A 2001 study published in the American Journal of Public Health reached out to over 100 people with very different life experiences to answer the question “What does the word community mean to you?” You might find your own answer to the question in their responses:

  • Communities have a sense of place
  • Community members share interests and perspectives, and have social ties with each other
  • Communities evolve from a sense of shared purpose
  • Communities are complex and are able to encompass diversity

Community responsiveness recognizes that communities have many factors that affect them. Power dynamics often complicate how communities share and understand information. In community-responsive research, there is a sponsor (i.e., a State agency or nonprofit) that has questions to answer, and they share responsibility for methods, data and interpretation with community members. A key assumption in our community-responsive research practice is that people hold different kinds of expertise (i.e., community, cultural, technical, issue-specific, organizational, etc.) that are all valuable to the research process. Over the years, we have learned that community contexts greatly affect our practice. For example, in a study we did for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, previous researchers had limited success in recruiting millennials to complete a survey. After discussions with millennials and a review of literature, we recommended very different recruiting strategies than the phone-based survey used in the past, using social media and existing networks to recruit participants. Through several projects, including ones focused on hearing from people with disabilities, veterans, recent immigrants, youth, and in an international context, we incorporated community-responsive methods into our research practice. These methods include:

  • Engaging advisors from the community, either as a formal committee or through individual conversations, such as the youth advisory group that helped us develop our approach to a study of youth exiting foster care
  • Hiring people directly from the community to assist in the research, such as in our pilot study for Minnesota’s Olmstead plan, where we hired people with disabilities and caregivers to administer a survey
  • Being adaptive and iterative, modifying methods for different groups, as we did in our partnership with Hennepin County Libraries; we adapted the Photovoice method to work more effectively with short-term youth interactions.
  • Using multiple methods to respond to a wide variety of preferences, as in our work with the Global Citizens Corps program, where we used interviews, online social media conversations, and surveys to understand the experiences of youth leaders in multiple countries
  • Hearing different ways that people describe issues and problems, such as when we examined access to mental health services and learned that, for some people, beliefs about mental health were a barrier we hadn’t considered

Community responsive research builds on the following frameworks that have informed our practice:

Using insights from our project work and different frameworks, we have developed our own interpretation of what community responsive means: Community-responsive research recognizes the complexities of each community, and uses methods that respect community members and allow a wide variety of community voices to be heard. What do you think of our proposed definition of community-responsive research? How does it match or conflict with how you see research practiced in communities?