Community-Based, Participatory Action Research: A Hypothesis for Brigade Program Success

“Gaining knowledge is the first step to wisdom. Sharing it is the first step to humanity.”

- Unknown (recently quoted by Amanda Renteria)

The Code for Hawaii Brigade was founded in 2014 in the wake of an unprecedented success. Through the advocacy of the Brigade’s founder, Burt Lum, an Open Data Bill was passed at the state legislature in a single session, and an Open Data Bill at the City and County of Honolulu soon followed. As a colleague of Burt’s, a software developer working on developing data visualizations, and an admirer of 2012 Code for America Fellowship in Honolulu, I had a clear idea of what a Brigade would be. A brigade would DO things. Doing things would FIX problems. It was a straight line from A (Do things) to B (fix problems) and the number of problems we could fix was effectively infinite - limited only by the number of volunteers and the number of ideas.

Suffice it to say, my perspective has evolved. That straight line looks substantially more like a maze, without an obvious exit to point B. My work on the Brigade Program is informed by an updated hypothesis of the relationship between Points A and B, and a few more points in between.

What is Research?

In 2014, I was developing data visualizations for a public policy research center out of the University of Hawaiʻi called UHERO - The Economic Research Organization at the University of Hawaiʻi. It was the Economics that drew me to the organization, but ultimately it was the research that left a lasting impression. In the spring of 2020 (as I was starting my term as the Co-Chair of the National Advisory Council), The Qualitative Research Team released “Qualitative Research at Code for America”. The document’s guiding principles resonated with everything that the Brigade Program had observed and experienced over the years, and, ironically? substantially more than my initial ideas about what a Brigade should be.

What IS research, and what is its relationship to our hopes and dreams for the Brigade Program? Moreover, what was the relationship between the econometrics, statistics, environmental science and modeling we did at UHERO and the interviews, user testing, and journey-mapping we are doing at Code for America?

Qualitative Research at Code for America opens with:

Researchers at Code for America seek to understand the beliefs, needs, and values of people to create a foundation for innovative and life-changing products and services. Research is fundamental to developing government services that better and more equitably meet the needs of communities. Raising the bar on research raises the bar on quality and effectiveness for everything we seek to do.

“create a foundation [for innovation]”, “fundamental to equitably meeting the needs of communities” these sounded like the aspiration of every Brigade volunteer I ever spoke to. The key to unlocking those things? “seek[ing] to understand” - the object of any research.

But is research the means or the end?

Exploring Indigenous Research Methods

I have shared, on several occasions, the ways in which my ongoing education on Indigenous Hawaiian culture influences not only how I try to relate and contribute to the community I reside in (notably, as a settler) but also how I approach my professional and civic tech work. Specifically, I have been inspired by indigenous research methods and a Hawaiian method called Maʻawe Pono. In describing the details of the methodology, Dr. Kū Kahakalau distinguishes Maʻawe Pono from western research methodologies in several ways including that the research topic must be of substantial interest to both the researcher and the community, dispensing with the notion of research neutrality and noting that this personal and collective involvement has been demonstrated to improve research outcomes.

This type of experimentation, generally known as action research, is also aligned with the proverb, “Ma ka hana ka ʻike. By doing one learns,” which purports that Hawaiians establish facts and principles from experience and deduce theory from practice (Pukui 1983, 227).

Action research is by design collaborative, emphasizing community participation, requiring participants to have some level of investment in the study, and share a desire to bring about meaningful social change at a local level. In fact, "the values embedded in the action research process are expressed in a discourse of ‘sensitivity,’ ‘respect,’ ‘self empowerment,’ professionalism,’ ‘collaboration’ and shared responsibility’ (Somekh 2006, 47). Māʻawe Pono has purposefully been designed to be action-oriented, and make a difference in Hawaiian communities.

Ma ka hana ka ʻike. In contemporary education, this insight warrants its own curriculum philosophy: “Project Based Learning”. Project Based Learning also describes so much of what I observe at Code for Hawaii and across the network (and also perhaps captures so many things we otherwise consider failures). Action Research builds on the concept of Project Based Learning by layering on the creation of generalized knowledge to developing an individualʻs knowledge. Participatory Action Research adds yet another layer by broadening both what can be learned and who embodies that knowledge through the participation of co-researchers. Community-Based, Participatory Action Research demands a final, critical requirement for successful research: Impact. If the results of the project do not accrue benefits to the community in which the research is taking place, the research is not valid - or at least it is incomplete.

THE HYPOTHESIS: Community-Based, Participatory Action Research will animate our finest Brigade work

Projects, executed in a participatory way by community members with the intent of creating beneficial impact for a community. To my ear, that sounds a lot like what Brigades do. What’s missing is the explicit commitment to the creation of knowledge and to collective learning. The primacy of that purpose - to learn and create more knowledge (through participatory projects that benefit communities) is missing as well. To the extent that we learn from our projects today, we generally consider that an important, but optional byproduct of impact. Framing Brigades activities as Community-Based, Participatory, Action Research, suggests the creation of knowledge in communities is their primary purpose.

And that, fundamentally, is the hypothesis this year’s brigade program activities are organized around. Do our Brigades, our projects, and the communities we serve thrive when we place the development and sharing of knowledge at the center of our work and pursue that goal in a community-based, participatory, and action oriented way? Here are some possibilities:

  • A basecamp focused on partnership that supports:
    • Individual and Brigade relationships with partner organizations that prioritize understanding that partnerʻs impact activities
    • Sharing findings from partnerships across the network to offer inspiration and actionable knowledge to local community partners

  • A basecamp focused on knowledge sharing that:
    • Identifying for each volunteer what elements of civic engagement and community history, and practical technology application they would like to learn more about
    • Engaging mentorship from around the network to develop individual and brigade knowledge and capabilities

  • Brigade roles that:
    • Celebrate and honor the lived experience of community members.
    • Steward the learning, knowledge and development of volunteers and partners

  • Brigade projects that:
    • Include well-documented, participatory, and inclusive discovery activities
    • Focus brigade activities on prototyping and testing over production and maintenance
    • Specify gaps in community knowledge and build in activities to share that knowledge in the communities and across the network

  • Communities of Practice that:
    • Advance the discipline globally
    • Connect volunteers to civic tech professionals and scale best practices that transform the status quo

What do you think?

  1. Would thinking of your Brigade’s activities as Community-based, Participatory, Action Research (CBPAR) describe some of your past successes?
  2. Would it create new possibilities for the future?

Moreover, if we are to practice this in our home communities across the US, how might we practice CBPAR as a Brigade Network Community?

  1. What do we need to understand about ourselves to best realize our vision of Technology for the people in service of a more just and equitable world?

Would love to hear your thoughts below! :speech_balloon:


@bentrevino this hits so hard to the core for me and my surrounding communities. Where agriculture has been a known foundation along with diverse minorities, the Central Valley area of California has been severely underrepresented. As the Co-Captain of Code for Fresno, this is particularly challenging. We have our younger generation that is not supported in technology unless they have funds to support that avenue. unfortunately, our older generations are of the thought that a full-time job at a chain store that guarantees the bills are paid is much better than a technology " fad". Technology IS the future. The recent pandemic has made that an even more solid factor in our everyday lives. Getting buy-in from individuals who struggled yet still stand proudly isn’t easy. I understand we have to change those points of view, carefully and with empathy. Empathy towards the individuals they are and to those who aspire to learn for a better future.