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Community-engaged research is gaining popularity in research circles, which feels exciting and full of potential. However, my experience doing this work has shown me that to realize this potential, researchers must commit to the hard work of both unlearning many of the conventions we have been taught and re-positioning ourselves in new types of inquiry. 

It all starts with listening.

As a social scientist, I was trained to fit complex questions into the predefined logic and models of fields such as economics, sociology, and public health, all to produce empirical answers. Humans like clean explanations, and a well-designed study that proves or disproves a hypothesis can be brilliant and captivating. But a considerable portion of social science remains rooted in racist, classist, and patriarchal frameworks. Resisting such ingrained biases–especially in predominantly white academic settings–demands lifelong commitment and dedication. I am consistently surprised at how rarely academic research questions align with the priorities and experiences of the people most affected by the issues.

In contrast, community-engaged research embraces the complexities and messiness of life, seeking to understand multifaceted issues. It welcomes and centers the perspectives of those directly impacted. Although this approach can be more demanding, I believe it holds the promise of providing more applicable insights for social change.  

Here’s what this looks like at the Leah Zallman Center for Immigrant Health Research (LZC), a center at the Institute for Community Health, where we seek to understand and advance immigrant health equity and well-being. We started with a series of messy and complex “big picture” questions such as:

  • What is the role of specific social, institutional, and structural determinants in generating disparities in health outcomes between and within immigrant groups? 
  • Why do our health and social systems still produce increasingly unequal outcomes for immigrant communities within 1-2 generations when we already know what is needed to work toward equity?
  • How can communities develop structures and policies that lead to greater belonging and enhanced well-being for newcomers?

No social science field alone has the tools to answer these complicated questions, so we brought together 100+ people this past spring in a participatory forum called Power in Listening to listen, learn, and develop collective research questions. Doctors, policy aides, immigrant community leaders, researchers, and nonprofit leaders shared across roles, cross-pollinating and co-creating ideas. It was art and science in action.

Since then, our team has continued to engage with partners to systematically refine research questions and turn them into concrete proposals. Some of our priority questions now include:

  • As mental health screenings become increasingly standardized for providers nationally, how can healthcare institutions create structures that are responsive to the cultural and linguistic norms in immigrant communities?
  • What are the potential policy leverage points to improve access to MassHealth (Massachusetts’ version of Medicaid) for underserved/ineligible immigrant populations?
  • Does channeling legal and social support for asylum seekers through community-based, immigrant-led organizations improve family and community well-being? If so, how?
  • What access do immigrant workers in high risk occupations have to substance use harm reduction, treatment, and recovery supports through the workplace?
  • How can we learn from Empowerment Economics to shift harmful dominant narratives about wealth, power, and well-being in low-income immigrant communities?

At this early stage of LZC’s growth, I can confidently say that we are building anti-racist and anti-assimilationist norms into the foundation of the center. Our process is imperfectly messy and complex at times, but that’s the hard and necessary work. We are experimenting and partnering to establish a space where interdisciplinary, mixed methods, and community-engaged research can flourish. We are collectively strengthening our listening muscles to answer questions affecting policies, practices, relationships, power dynamics, advocacy movements, and organizational decisions in real time. We’re still–and always will be–learning, and we invite you to join us in ongoing dialogue and partnership as we strive to create a world in which immigrants, their loved ones, and all of us can thrive.