FOCUS ON: Community-Based Research, Everyone is an Expert!

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Guest Contribution by: Nancy Gibson, PhD, Safe and Caring Board Member 

Nancy Gibson is a Senior Researcher for CIET, Professor Emeritus & Former Chair of the Department of Human Ecology at the University of Alberta and Former Science Director of the Circumpolar Institute.

With decades of experience as a community leader and a research specialization in community studies, Nancy has facilitated many community-based research projects in Canada and overseas.

This work brings together communities to identify priorities and work together to develop solutions that meet their needs.

Community-based research (CBR) isn’t new, although the approach wasn’t called that until recently.

One of my early experiences was about fifteen years ago, when the Big Brothers, Big Sisters mentoring program in Edmonton wanted to extend their program to serve Aboriginal youth. The effectiveness of the BBBS program in supporting the emotional and mental safety of young people has been well-established over many decades in Canada. But how would the program work for Aboriginal youth? What should be different?

I was part of the academic team and we knew we needed direct information from the people for whom the program was being developed. We invited Aboriginal youth to participate in interviews and focus group discussions, exploring what an Aboriginal mentoring program would look like and talking about program successes and challenges in their local communities.

By engaging the youth as advisors for the new program, they realised that their knowledge and expertise were central to the success of the program. The process was guided by an advisory group of Elders and parents. Through this collaboration with community members, a successful Aboriginal mentoring program was established, reflecting traditional values and culture.

The basic principle of community-based research is: Ask the people themselves. And there are scientifically valid methods for collecting data – interview strategies such as key informant and semi-structured interviews, focus groups and other qualitative methods, followed by meticulous data analysis, and testing of the results – all part of the CBR toolkit.

This is quite different to the expert model that many professionals and academics are used to. And yet, more appropriate and sustainable programs emerge when everyone’s expertise is counted.

Our BBBS research circle included the youth, Elders and potential mentors, along with people from the organization itself, bringing their past experience with many different groups, and… oh yes, us academics, moving from the “expert” model to being resources and facilitators.

CBR is research that includes the people in the community who have first-hand knowledge of the issue, and who may be affected by the research outcomes. This approach has proven to produce more accurate results, more appropriate programs, with much less bias, especially when developing programs addressing community priorities.

This article appeared in our June 2015 News Bulletin. Click here to read the rest of the bulletin!

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