Research in Communities: Stories from the Field
Keynote Event of the 2019 Pardee RAND Faculty Leaders Program
Photo by Diane Baldwin/RAND Corporation
August 5, 2019
"Objectivity is a myth. There is no such thing. You'd better be clear where your biases are. They are there, and as long as you are engaged in community-based participatory research, your heart is going to go out to people."
So said UCLA anthropologist and professor Dr. Jorja Leap in her keynote address to the 2019 Faculty Leaders Program.
Her talk, "Research in Communities: Stories from the Field," addressed myriad questions: How can researchers work to effect change, improve quality of life, and address a social dilemma? How can they provide added value, not just collect data? If the research is participatory, how is the researcher participating? What can the research — and the researcher — add to the community? And how does being an "activist researcher" affect the researchers themselves?
First and foremost, Leap said, "You cannot go into a community with moral or intellectual assumptions. You must go in planning to build the theory from the ground up," she added. "Don't go into the community with a theory. Go in and have the folks in the community teach you their theory."
She also shared anecdotes from her experience working with at-risk and gang-involved youth, formerly incarcerated women, death row inmates, and many others.
"Don't go into the community with a theory. Go in and have the folks in the community teach you their theory."
"I'm always frightened," she said candidly. "I'm always afraid, because I am an outsider, and I acknowledge that. But when I stop being anxious, I quit. Being anxious keeps me eager and open to learn. No researcher should be confident. You should have trust, but you should also have anxiety to say 'I need to know what I don't know.'"
"I had, and I continue to have, the education of a lifetime in Watts," she added.
Leap has been a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Luskin School of Public Affairs since 1992 and in 2019 won the UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award. As a recognized expert in gangs, violence, and trauma, she has worked both nationally and internationally in violent and post-war settings all of her career. Her current work focuses on gangs, law enforcement and community justice in multi-cultural settings, criminal justice and prison reform, and the dilemmas faced by individuals reentering society after incarceration.
She is also as the executive director of the UCLA Social Justice Research Partnership, the director of the LAPD–Community Safety Partnership Evaluation Project, and the qualitative research director for the Los Angeles Mayor's Office Gang Reduction Youth Development (GRYD) Program. Additionally, she serves as an expert reviewer on gangs for the National Institute of Justice and as the co-founder and director of the Watts Leadership Institute.
"Working with [formerly incarcerated] fathers taught me the meaning of collective efficacy," she said. "These were men who had been incarcerated but who wanted to be good fathers, wanted to find a way back. Their voices had to be brought into the policy discussion."
As part of her community-based research efforts, Leap has authored numerous reports, articles, and book chapters as well as the books Jumped In: What Gangs Taught Me about Violence, Love, Drugs and Redemption and Project Fatherhood: A Story of Courage and Healing in One of America's Most Troubled Communities. She is currently at work on her third book, focused on women, motherhood, and prison reentry, to be published by Beacon Press.
"Research is sexy, it is exciting, if you make it that way."
Following her talk, Leap happily fielded audience questions on topics such as how to find funding and how to work with communities overseas.
When it comes to funding, she said, the importance of analytical precision cannot be overstated. "In philanthropic organizations," she explained, "there is a hunger for empirical rigor in community-based participatory research. They will pour money into it."
She also said working in developing countries shouldn't be much different from working in underserved areas of the United States. "First and foremost," she said, "you've got to make a [long-term] commitment. Second, hire from within. There's got to be parity. Make the individuals there the [principal investigator] and make yourself be the co-PI. Even something as basic as that."
She added, "Get grants and give every penny to the community. Set up these structures ahead of time so there is not a whiff of imperialism."
Leap emphasized, "Community-based research is relational. The research you do is dependent on the relationships you build, and recognizing that the experts are in the community.
"Research is sexy, it is exciting," she concluded. "If you make it that way."
— Monica Hertzman
Now in its seventh year, the Pardee RAND Faculty Leaders Program is a professional development program for faculty who work with students or in disciplines underrepresented in public policy. Leap's keynote address and the preceding reception were co-sponsored by the RAND Diversity Forum and presented with support from the Henry Luce Foundation.