Researching with Community Partners

Earlier this year when the team of curriculum designers at The Community Library Project and I first started speaking about the possibility of studying the role of informal spaces in young people’s lives, our research interests, though essentially looking at similar aspects, differed. While I was interested in looking at youth engagement in informal spaces, the sociocultural and political context of the library practices, and the role of the informal in young people’s learning and literacy, the curriculum team had a more pressing need to understand the impact of closure of libraries on their members’ literacy practices so that they could identify the literacy / library practices that seem to be key. They had reading fluency assessment data that they had collected from before the pandemic lockdown in India and 19 months post Covid-19 lockdown that they wanted to study and correlate with their library  practices. As a literacy scholar working from a critical socio-cultural historical standpoint, I look at the social, cultural, economic and political context that shape people’s experiences, beliefs, and perspectives on literacy. Analyzing the reading assessment data to understand literacy and learning outcomes seemed to me a skill oriented approach that sees literacy as a have or have not.

So, how does one navigate a situation like this as a researcher? Do you change your research questions and beliefs? Do you look for another site? Do you make your partners change their questions? There are no right and wrong answers here, and a lot also depends on your own connection to your field site and your understanding of the space. As a qualitative researcher committed to working in close association with communities (and for the community), the decision was easy. Be cognizant of the fact that the community partners  know more about their context and have more expertise from being in the field – they know what their needs are. And understand that even the most ethically designed research (and an ethical research) can be extractive and continue to serve the researcher much after the research is done (e.g., published academic papers, presentations, talks). To work closely with a community, I had to understand their needs first, and then bring in my perspective as a researcher.

We decided that a librarian would join me as a co-researcher. I would help train the librarian for future research the organization may want to conduct. Working with the librarian as a co-researcher, who herself had been a library member and knew the library from when it started, was helpful. She had deep knowledge about TCLP and context of the library / members. Our interview protocol, that we worked on together, had questions that got to the wider socio-cultural contexts of the young members. We would conduct unstructured and structured interviews, and understand the experiences of the library members over the last few years. We decided to interview the librarians at TCLP as well. Along with this, I observed why and how the reading fluency assessments were being done. This was particularly helpful as I noticed the ways in which this information from these assessments was used to support the members further highlighting the deep commitment the library has to its members. Since this is non-formal / non-school-based assessment, the members themselves seem to be participating willingly in this – most members I spoke to shared that the Reading Fluency program was one of their favorites at the library! We were able to bring in rich discussions from members while studying the reading fluency data.

As an outsider in this space, working closely with TCLP on what they needed most, helped me build a strong connection with the community. As a qualitative researcher, working with ethnographic methods, this experience opened me to a more nuanced and diverse narrative of what was happening in the space. I am interested in understanding what is happening in spaces – and leading with what my field site wanted was a way for me to recognize the knowledge that communities have.

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About Rabani Garg

I am a Ph.D. student in the Literacy, Culture, and International Education division at the Graduate school of Education, University of Pennsylvania. I research youth literacy practices and participation on digital media networks through ethnographic and multimodal methods. Over the last 5 years, I have worked on a longitudinal research study that looks at motivations guiding youth authoring and sharing on transnational media networks, and digitally mediated sites itself as a tool of surveillance. My work focuses on youth led collaborative spaces and the role of informal education/spaces in student learning and literacy practices.