When I walked into the Centre for Community Based Research in downtown Kitchener last Thursday, I was quite nervous. There was no reason that its director, Joanna Ochocka, should have agreed to be interviewed. Joanna has a PhD in Sociology, and her CV is literally 28 pages long.
However, when she walked out to meet me, what struck me first were her eyes. They were an intense blue, at the same time piercingly intelligent and openly welcoming. I felt like she was someone who would listen to me. After making me some tea, she graciously took an entire hour to tell me about the work that she does and the passion that drives her to do it:
“Some people organize soccer, others grow gardens. We do research.”
Joanna still speaks with a slight accent from her youth in Poland. When she was young, her mountaineer brother had a bad accident and was in the hospital for months. This sparked an interest in Joanna for people with physical disabilities. Eventually, she did her PhD, specialising in the rehabilitation of people with disabilities into society. But her research wasn’t detached, like most academic work. She actively tried to help the people she studied. She told me:
“When I was doing my research, I didn’t just interview people. After I finished, I kept them all in the circle, I sent them my findings…I wanted this to change things for them”.
When she came to Canada, Joanna learned that the type of research she was doing fell into the emerging fields of participatory or action research. Participatory research came from work in developing countries, focussing on listening to the community. Action research was from the corporate world, where companies were beginning to focus on having employees reflect on information to change behaviour, like how telling people that cigarettes shorten your life by X years is enough to stop many from smoking.
Out of these two fields emerged a third way of connecting research and people. In “community based research” researchers listen to the community in order to gain important insights, feeding the knowledge created back into the community in order to effect change.
She gave me a detailed rundown what a project might look like, which you can read about here if you’re more interested. Essentially, a group from within the community representing different perspectives is selected, and they then plan and guide the research process.
“Sharing power is an art more than a science”
More than this, what I was eager to ask Joanna was about the participatory process itself. On a theoretical level, I love the idea of public participation, but there are critics who contend that the process ignores power dynamics, giving a voice to the loudest while failing to make change for those who need it most.
In response to these critiques, Joanna acknowledged the challenge, but reminded me that, sharing power is an art more than a science, something learned not taught. In carrying this out, there are several things to keep in mind:
– The process must be value driven. For the Centre, there is a commitment to empowerment, learning, diversity and social justice which defines everything they do.
– The researcher must ask themselves: “Am I sharing power?” Before they can expect meaningful interactions within he community, they must be willing to step down and engage with the people they are working with.
– The community must be committed to the process of improvement.
She finished with a story about a study the Centre did on people with mental health disabilities. They hired and trained 14 community members with mental health challenges to do the interviews and focus groups. Here’s the thing- the project was a 7 year research project. The “staff” became family as they carried out their research. Tragically, toward the end of the study, one of the researchers passed.
Joanna, still moved by a story from 2007, shared:
“He didn’t have any family or friends, just us. So from the Centre for Community Based Research, we became the Centre for Community Funerals”.
In the end, the research didn’t matter as much as the person.
In the end, the research is secondary. Everyone at the centre is committed to creating a better society. Joanna concluded “Some people organize soccer, others grow gardens. We do research.” Big grants and long reports are secondary. For this extremely accomplished academic, research is just a tool to improve the world around her.