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DSJ Part II: Community Engagement’s Potential to Address Social Inequities—Lessons From CRISP

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Breanca Merritt and Sean McCandless
August 22, 2020

Public problems, especially social inequities, do not exist in a vacuum, but often, scholars and public administrators attempt to solve them as if they do. In order to address inequities effectively, public administrators must engage with historically marginalized communities harmed by government.

Universities are integral to fostering awareness of these issues and promoting engagement. One example is the Center for Research on Inclusion and Social Policy (CRISP) at Indiana University (IU), which aims to address a gap in research needs for the City of Indianapolis and the state of Indiana.

CRISP addresses the complex, intersecting issues of social policy in order to inform local decisions that will enhance the quality of life for historically marginalized populations. CRISP helps demonstrate that reducing barriers to socially equitable outcomes results from creating opportunities for community engagement throughout the research process and its practice.

Five lessons stand out:

  • Integrated expertise and collaboration
    • To address the intersecting nature of social problems, team members and affiliates have substantial expertise and professional experiences spanning a variety of areas that enable them to work in teams and respond to a variety of issues. When the team does not know something about an issue, its members can connect with former county clerks, housing leaders and others to review the team’s work for usability and influencing local decisions. For example, CRISP has worked with colleagues with criminal justice expertise to identify root causes of crime in Indianapolis neighborhoods (i.e. racial inequity, poverty and employment). These colleagues bring knowledge of law enforcement, corrections, mental health/substance abuse and other related systems.
  • Lived experiences matter
    • The team, including students, is intentionally diverse in a variety of ways that add context to the Center’s projects and partners. The experiences of single moms, immigrants, members of the LGBTQ+ community, former teachers and others allows the team to keep abreast of what is happening in certain communities. For example, policy processes and administrative burdens are exposed by these insights and become sources for survey and qualitative research projects, in addition to offering context regarding ways to communicate with diverse audiences in accessible ways. Most recently, because students work closely with the undocumented immigrant community, the team has been able to identify and communicate how their experiences have been exacerbated by COVID-19 and local policy decisions.
  • Community engagement
    • IUPUI strongly emphasizes community engagement as a cornerstone of faculty work, which is more frequently used in disciplines outside of public administration (e.g. anthropology, education). Community-engaged research emphasizes the need for research to be multi-directional and to treat community members as meaningful participants. CRISP partners with organizations on campus and externally to support listening sessions with local residents to understand their perspectives on a variety of issues. The team builds on those lived experiences from community residents and stakeholders to inform how to approach projects. CRISP aims to maintain a presence in and relationships with certain neighborhoods, populations and organizations to keep an ear to the ground about key topics. Using Data Walks and community presentations, the team is able to engage residents in key research findings to understand whether proposed policy and organizational recommendations are feasible. The team also provides presentations for publicly available meetings, like city-county council committees, which inform both policymakers and residents.
  • Access for laypersons and decisionmakers
    • Many peer-reviewed journals are not open access, and even when they are, they are not usually digestible for decisionmakers and certainly lay audiences. CRISP invests in rigorous but easily digestible and graphically heavy briefs, often with corresponding blog posts. The research focuses on key trends, sometimes hyper-locally within the city, which allows others to ask specific questions about how those trends may exist where they live. The team has also invested in understanding the city and specific communities well enough to identify power players who can ensure our work can be used by those who would benefit from and use the information to make decisions. CRISP also works with different local media outlets, such as Black and Spanish-language sources, to share key findings, or allow Q&A on timely issues.
  • Be unafraid to address community issues, especially if leaders aren’t paying attention
    • Indiana is a place perhaps best known nationally for bucking social equity, as a hotbed for KKK membership in the 1920s and the 2012 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which would have acted as a mechanism for organizations to refute same-sex marriage. Neither racial equity and social justice nor housing instability were deemed major policy issues locally when CRISP was founded, but community residents and the team’s research continued to identify those issues despite local partners’ existing strategies. COVID-19 exacerbated those issues, and CRISP was ready with existing research driven by community perspectives and local data to engage and inform discussions about how to address those problems.

Addressing social inequities requires bringing down barriers. Without community engagement with populations negatively impacted by administrative actions, social equity will not be achieved. As the work of CRISP demonstrates, reducing barriers and promoting awareness and understanding, especially providing knowledge to and for administrators, is essential to making social equity a priority.


Authors:

Breanca Merritt is a Clinical Assistant Professor and Founding Director of the Center for Research on Inclusion and Social Policy (CRISP) at the Indiana University Public Policy Institute. Her research examines how public policies and programs facilitate racial inequity across areas of social policy. E-mail: [email protected]. Twitter: @breancamerritt

Sean McCandless, Ph.D. is an assistant professor and associate director of the Doctorate in Public Administration program at the University of Illinois Springfield. E-mail:[email protected] Twitter: @seanmcc_pa

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