Yasser Payne had seen it done before, and he was intrigued.
The Participatory Action Research (PAR) model, in which members of a population under study conduct research in and on their own communities, had been successfully adopted in public health campaigns, in education initiatives, even in his own mentor’s scholarship.
So why not in black men from the criminal justice system, he wondered.
As the UD associate professor soon found, the methodology has proven to be a highly effective research tool, and more importantly, “an action in social justice.”
In a recent study of two of Wilmington’s high-crime neighborhoods, Payne worked with the city’s HOPE Commission to create a 15-member research team composed of neighborhood residents charged with interviewing and surveying their communities on the causes of violence.
“Send us your hardest guys,” Payne remembers saying at the outset. His goals were big: “Let me train a guy from the ‘hood,’ and train him like a doctoral student.”
Of the 150 who applied, Payne chose 15 participants—both males and females, all black and many with criminal records—for his “Safe Communities” employment and training project.
True to his word, “I taught them survey design, data analysis and research methods like I teach my graduate students,” he says. “Nothing was watered down.”
The team, who referred to themselves as the “PAR family,” conducted advanced-level research on the East Side and Southbridge communities of Wilmington, reviewed subject literature, formally presented their findings and created numerous public service projects, including a soundtrack, public service announcement (PSA) and memorial video for the city’s homicide victims.
Today, two of his 15 participants are enrolled in graduate school, including Darryl “Wolfie” Chambers, a research associate in the Center for Drug and Alcohol Studies and UD student with research interests in the mental health needs of high-violence communities.
Chambers first met Payne through the HOPE Commission, and the professor’s words had a profound impact on the Wilmington resident.
“Studying the streets is a billion-dollar industry,” Payne told him. “Federal and state dollars are poured into understanding the community, with researchers studying our community from afar. They tell our story through numbers and data. We need to be part of that conversation.”
For Chambers, the message was clear: I need to be part of that conversation.
“I’ve been shot twice. My child was murdered. I’ve seen friends killed in front of me,” Chambers says. “I’m part of this community, but now I’m also a translator—the connective tissue, the linchpin—between the University and the streets.”
For Payne, Chambers’ story—indeed, the stories of the entire 15-member team—epitomizes his overarching belief that the black community is far more resilient than mainstream scholars, politicians and policymakers surmise.
“These are success stories we want to replicate,” he says, adding that one of his next areas of focus is to move PAR methodology into high schools, with a particular focus on recruiting students from alternative discipline schools who have failed in traditional education environments.
“The PAR model of research speaks to the very heart of our goals as scholars, as social activists, as promoters of social justice,” Payne says. “If you arm your community with knowledge, you can create lasting change.”