"We'll come to you": Reflections on the #BlackLivesMatter pre-conference community panel
By Mimi Arbeit, Elise Harris, and Lisette DeSouza
When planning the SRA preconference “#BlackLivesMatter: Can Adolescent Researchers Contribute to Racial Justice,” our priority was to connect adolescent researchers to racial justice organizing within Baltimore. The central focus of our preconference was a panel discussion in which four Baltimore community activists shared their perspectives on adolescent development and adolescent research. The outstanding panelists were Abdul Salaam, C Harvey, RaLinda Wimbush, and ShaiVaughn Crawely. The panel was co-facilitated by Qiara Butler, a Baltimore activist and also the keynote speaker for the preconference, and Elise Harris, preconference co-chair.
Towards the end of the panel, Harris asked the panelists, “How can research support your work and your community efforts, if at all?”
The message from the panel was clear:
Show up. Contribute to our communities. Build relationships with our community leaders.
Show up. Help us. And then, we will come to you when we want to do research. And it will be better research because of it.
Check out this Storify for a tweet-based summary of the entire panel discussion. Here we focus on the overarching questions of the day: can adolescent researchers contribute to racial justice, in relation to grassroots community efforts. As we seek to contribute to racial justice, what, specifically, can we do?
1. Step back
The first thing we can do as researchers is to step back -- to be willing to put ourselves and our research on the sidelines. “Sometimes the best way to help is to not have to be involved,” because “research funding is undercutting our community’s ability to meet our own needs” (Harvey). How? First, as Salaam stated, “I don’t see funding of grassroots orgs that are in and of our communities.” Second, the perception of research itself is that “research is done to keep us where we’re at - to not act” (Harvey). Through diverting funding and diverting the activist agenda, research can detract from the pursuit of racial justice. Salaam emphasized, “grassroots organizations know what they want and need -- and they don’t need you if you’re not going to get behind that.” But if we are going to get behind that, how can we contribute?
2. Support grassroots organizations
After stepping back as a researcher, next we can step up. Salaam suggested volunteering for an hour a week. Wimbush urged, “give time, give love, and give your light… really open up to understand what these children need.” Harvey suggested giving money, and figuring out how to “play your role with the skills you have.” The important thing is to “show up as an individual, not as an institution” (Salaam). Once you show up as you, then you can connect as you, too.
3. Build relationships
All of the panelists spoke about the value of genuine, authentic relationships between researchers and community activists. Butler’s keynote also centered on this message. During the panel discussion, Butler emphasized again that she and other community organizers want relationships with researchers, too. Community organizing is about building power -- and researchers, through our institutional affiliations, represent a whole bunch of power. How can we use that power to dismantle structural racism? We can start by asking. “Ask if you have questions - you don’t need to have all the answers” (Crowley).
4. Use your space to create opportunities
Adolescent researchers can contribute to racial justice not just through the content of our research but also through the choices we make with our research funding. Butler told researchers to invest money into the community. Wimbush told us to create jobs for young people, especially summer jobs. Contribute to the redistribution of resources and opportunities.
5. We will come to you when we need research done
WIth all of the above pieces in place, community members organizing for racial justice can approach us, to engage us as researchers. Simply put, “Let us ask you for what we need” (Harvey). And regardless of who initiates the research, panelists wanted to be involved throughout the research process. “When you leave leaders out of the research process, you leave the authenticity out of the statistics” (Salaam).
Examples of the kinds of research that panelists wanted to see are in the Storify.
The advice from these grassroots activists challenges the basic ways in which we operate as researchers. We develop research agendas. That’s what we do, as researchers. We look at the literature to see what’s been done, then make sense of it to see what we need to do next. We plan our careers around the questions we want to ask and how we want to ask them. We seek funding so we can ask questions and get answers and ask new questions and seek more funding. Scientific work is about being systematic in our process of knowledge production.
But, as researchers, we also need to know when to step back from our own research agendas, to support underresourced grassroots organizations working to implement the very practices our research already highlights as needed, and to build authentic relationships with community leaders. This process of relationship building, this emphasis on waiting, are not easily implemented within the system of academic scholarship. How do we shift our own expectations, and our expectations of each other, to make space for these priorities?
The message from our panelists was that yes, adolescent researchers can contribute to racial justice... if we’re ready to follow their lead.