How researchers get heard
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POV: Who Are You to Us?

Why have so many residents in Detroit’s communities of color turned down the city’s offer to plant free trees in front of their homes?

Because no one asked them if they wanted the trees.

They should want them — at least, that’s how a researcher might think. After all, there’s lots of evidence that trees provide multiple benefits to urban residents — from relief from heat waves to cleaner air to increased property values, and maybe even improved mental health. So why wouldn’t you want a free tree?

CityLab reported this story in January: the University of Vermont researcher Christine E. Carmichael went to Detroit and interviewed some of the Detroiters who had said no to the trees during 2011-2014. The interviews eventually formed the basis for Carmichael’s paper (written with Maureen H. McDonough) published in Society & Natural Resources in January.

Of course, it turns out there’s a backstory that the tree advocacy group didn’t know about: trees were cut down in African-American Detroit neighborhoods after the 1967 race rebellion there. The city said the cutting was meant stop the spread of Dutch Elm disease. The residents had what Carmichael terms an alternative “heritage narrative”: they thought the tree cutting helped Detroit police “better surveil their neighborhoods from helicopters and other high places after the urban uprising,” writes CityLab reporter Brentin Mock.

Bottom line: the interviewed residents didn’t trust the city — certainly not about trees.

Mock also reported that the residents didn’t trust The Greening of Detroit, the organization planning the planting and tree maintenance. Most of its volunteers were white and not from Detroit. It only had one community outreach staffer. The development of the urban forestry plans didn’t include neighborhood residents. Outreach was limited to fliers and announcements at community meetings.

The research on the benefits of trees died on the windshield of one-way research communication.

If you want to effectively deliver research-based insights to a community, you have to build trust and authority with that community. Building trust and authority relies on dialogue and listening and transparency — not just credentials and expertise. You need to learn a lot about the community with which you’re talking — including whether that community’s previous history with research cast them as “subjects” or invited them in as co-creators; how they might or might not have benefited from the findings (or even been informed about them); and whether action taken in their community based on research was taken with their input.

So, the first component of establishing a research-driven POV is to signal: who are you in relationship to us?

Have you listened to us and allowed us to participate in your research, and how?

How might we use and share what you have found?

In other words: what makes you credible (in addition to your research findings) for us?

Toward a model for this kind of transparency: Alvaro Huerta’s HuffPo piece “A Chicana/o Manifesto on Community Organizing: Reflections of a Scholar-Activist,” as well as his piece for Inside Higher Ed, “Viva the Scholar-Activist!

In the HuffPo article, Huerta details his scholarly foundation, his student and community activism, and his life history growing up in poverty before writing a mini-manifesto for community organizers.

For Inside Higher Ed, Huerta takes a clear stand: his scholarship feeds into a larger mission, to improve the lives of historically marginalized communities.

This kind of transparency is very rare among researchers. We would rather assume research = credibility.

You’ll plant a lot fewer trees with that mindset, literally and figuratively.