Peer Researchers Amplify Community Voice

How can we continue to amplify community voice in and through our design practice?

This question underscores a key part of our mission at Design Impact, which is to apply creative and inclusive designs to complex social issues.

One way we’ve explored making our preliminary research – what we refer to as “discovery work” – more inclusive of community voice is through our peer researcher model. Our peer researcher model draws on the principles and practices found in Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR). It is traditionally rooted in Latin America, Asia, African and feminist action research and seeks to create spaces for critical reflection on community issues while cultivating commitment to social transformation and action. It is an approach used in social science fields like Sociology, Social Work, Public Health, Community-Psychology, Gender Studies, etc.

Traditional approaches to nonprofit work often empower ‘experts’ as ‘objective’ sources of insight. Practitioners and academics design research based on scientific rigor, the priorities of funding institutions, and the best practices and guesses within their disciplines. They ask: what do researchers, doctors, social workers, teachers, nurses, workforce development specialists know that youth, parents, and families need? The audience for this work is often other professionals.

While this approach can prove insightful, an even more fundamental question is: what is relevant to the youth, parents, and families who use a service? This question is different from the one traditionally asked because answering it requires that the groups who are typically the subjects of research help define and frame the work.

As a result, community relevance becomes a key focus and product of research, and not only scholarly significance. By infusing Design Impact’s creative discovery methods with CBPR approaches, we continue to place principles of equity, collaboration, empowerment, and the democratization of knowledge front and center in our design work.

Dominique during a PhotoVoice session with our peer researchers. Our main goals in using PhotoVoice were to reflect on the lives of children in the communities of Price Hill and Avondale, see things through each other’s eyes so that we can better understand and work toward change, and empower communities to work together for change.

Through our peer researcher model, community members co-create every aspect of the research process—from design and formulation of the research questions, to conducting the research, all the way through synthesizing the information, generating ideas, and creating prototypes. Peer researchers are not simply interview subjects, but co-collaborators and co-designers in a creative endeavor that empowers and invigorates their communities.

We see four key benefits to working with peer researchers:

  • CITIZEN EMPOWERMENT empowers community members to play an active role in the process of saying what needs to be known about their community.
  • DEEPER RESEARCH lowers the barriers between participants and researchers–a barrier which can keep participants from sharing the kinds of deep experiences that drive relevant design.
  • UNHEARD VOICES leverages community insider knowledge and connections to the hard-to-reach populations that our partner organizations often struggle to engage.
  • LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT fosters learning between community members and partners while building community leadership and empowerment.
  • IMPROVED OUTCOMES helps to ensure that solutions are rooted in community voice and therefore able to reach the outcomes they seek.
  • HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS brings our staff designers closer to the communities we are designing with, making us better designers (and better people).

Our team has experienced the benefits of this more inclusive approach to discovery first-hand. Peer researchers passionately advocated for our work. When one of our projects stalled, a peer researcher advocated for the project with our partner by demanding greater collaboration to help move the project forward. Peer researchers shared their personal information with us, which informed discovery, and ultimately, the opportunity areas we presented to our partner. For example, some of the women we worked with informally shared their personal struggles with intimate partners. These conversations gave us richer insight into why women take seemingly extreme measures to control their births (e.g. getting their tubes tied) and what they needed from male companions. Those discussions informed some of the questions we asked men in subsequent group and one-on-one interviews. In the end, this peer researcher-guided line of inquiry led to new opportunity spaces around building loving, co-parenting relationships and including fathers as important, but misunderstood, caretakers.

The relational nature of our model made these research breakthroughs possible. In our short time together, our peer researchers have taught and supported us, and we them. We hope to continue refining and expanding this model of inclusive practice.

Photo by Reyna, who describes it as “United women who trust each other. We unite and get together in different ways throughout our lives.”

By Dawna Leggett
Senior Social Researcher