Eight years ago I was asked to develop a course that would demonstrate to USC Annenberg doctoral students that there was “life after a PhD” even if students didn’t end up with tenure track employment in the university. I was living proof. I had a Ph.D. (Communications, UCSD 2006) but I was working at one of the nation’s leading social justice foundations, Liberty Hill, helping communicate the extraordinary work of grassroots community leaders and their campaigns for justice.
From the beginning of my time at Liberty Hill I saw that grassroots organizations were hobbled in their effort to build persuasive campaign messages and credible relationships with the media because of lack of data. One of my first experiences was working with day laborers. They didn’t have data to prove how many day laborers there were in L.A., or how many in the country, the magnitude of the challenges day laborers were facing or the impact of the organization’s work on the problem.
So I developed the course as a hands-on opportunity for graduate students to partner with local community organizations on community-based research projects. Each student or student team is paired with an organization seeking help with research. The course provides a first-time experience for grad students to become “embedded researchers,” and for community organizations to engage in the disciplined thinking required to do research.
Over the first few semesters I taught the course, I came to understand that organizational readiness was a critical factor in the success of these projects, so the course became an informal partnership between USC and Liberty Hill Foundation.
Each winter, Liberty Hill issues a request for proposals to establish organizational readiness and help organizations focus their research questions. This allows me to assess whether the organizations have the capacity to manage a research project and to clarify critical elements of their proposed research prior to the beginning of the semester. (You can see a video here of the webinar I do during the RFP process that provides an overview of the process.)
In the last few semesters, grad student teams have partnered with many diverse communities - Pilipino and Korean workers looking to improve working conditions, queer Asian Americans, affordable housing advocates. We partnered with administrators of a social justice continuation high school who believed they were losing with their students and wanted an evaluation of the school’s programs. (The student team developed a focus group discussion guide, piloted it with student leaders, trained the students to lead the focus groups, and helped analyze and present the findings to the school.)
We have partnered with the Black Worker Center, a small South LA community organization that helps under- and unemployed Black men find jobs. BWC had just secured a project labor agreement which guaranteed local minority hiring from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on a $2.4 billion construction project. It was a huge victory for this tiny community organization but the MTA had no staff to enforce the agreement so if it was going to be enforced it was up to Black Worker Center. (Students researched precedents, developed a report card with criteria and trained the BWC staff. Ultimately, the MTA agreed to hire the contractor recommended by BWC and put BWC on its implementation team because it wasn't perceived as just one more “whining” community organization. BWC came to the MTA with research and a compliance instrument. They brought something to the table.)