Thinking about a research project related to the Downtown Eastside? You might want to talk to Dr. Heather Holroyd.
Community-based research (CBR) is an approach that works in partnership to produce academic scholarship while also addressing pressing community goals. Put simply, it tries to ensure mutual benefit for everyone involved. Not an especially difficult concept, but sometimes a complex one to put into practice in the academic world—it requires the time and resources to build reciprocal understanding, relationships, and trust.
In its location on Main Street, the UBC Learning Exchange has been building those relationships since 2000 by co-developing programming in partnership with communities in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. As these relationships deepened over 20 years, community members and university researchers alike began reaching out to Learning Exchange staff to broker research connections.
With support from the Carraresi Foundation and UBC’s Strategic Initiatives Fund, the Learning Exchange hired Dr. Heather Holroyd (UBC PhD ‘16) as a Community-Based Research Coordinator to respond to these requests and to connect community members and university researchers. Her role is unique, in that she is affiliated with a place-based unit that has a mandate to support community-university engagement.
What follows is a conversation with Heather about what drew her to CBR, her thoughts on its democratic potential, how her role works, and how a role that supports CBR delivers on all three themes of the UBC strategic plan.
What excites you about Community-Based Research (CBR)?
What’s not to get excited about? There’s so much potential for impact. It’s community-driven, participatory, and action-oriented. It’s attuned to power dynamics and ethical questions connected to research. When the approach is adopted fully, there are open negotiations about research questions, data collection methods, and how the data are interpreted, used and who owns it. The method isn’t suitable for all research but many studies benefit from incorporating some of its elements. It’s a democratic approach that values diverse forms of knowledge and a rigorous, evidence-based process. And it decenters the traditional position of the researcher as the expert, which can be very uncomfortable but is likely to lead to surprises and fruitful results.
Of course, it’s not simple. It requires considered, thoughtful collaboration. And it can be intimidating. That’s why I’m here. If you’re a researcher or faculty member considering work related to the Downtown Eastside, or if you’re in the Downtown Eastside and want to connect with the university about a potential project, I can work with you to find out how to best make connections and collaborate.
What exactly does a CBR Coordinator do?
I bring together people from Downtown Eastside communities and people—faculty, students or staff—in the university community, and support them to collaborate.
Because each project is so unique, it’s hard to generalize what “support” looks like but we have convened sessions with community leaders for research projects looking for early feedback, provided community-informed input on study recruitment materials, organized meetings with community members and key university stakeholders to explore opportunities for community-driven changes to university research policies, and so on.
The focus of the projects varies: we’ve worked with researchers on a variety of studies, such as mapping the genome, investigating how best to inform physicians about the overall health needs of adults with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, exploring the impacts of shifting the timing of social assistance payments, and studying cannabis use.
Connections, of course, work in both directions. Organizations and community members approach us to connect with graduate students who can support community-led evaluation projects, and to broker conversations with university offices responsible for granting ethics approval for proposed studies involving the Downtown Eastside.
I try to integrate elements of community-based research approaches into all of this work.
How did you learn about CBR?
When I was a graduate student at UBC, I joined the Positive Women’s Network (PWN) Board of Directors and learned more about the long history of HIV/AIDS advocacy. In the 1980s, when the HIV/AIDS epidemic was sweeping through communities, it was the members of those communities who demanded to work alongside researchers, practitioners, and policymakers at every stage of the process. “Nothing about us without us,” they said, which really resonated with me.
At the same time, I became involved in the UBC Urban Ethnographic Field School, where I supported undergraduate students to work with local Neighbourhood Houses using an asset-based community development approach. “Asset-based community development,” simply put, values the expertise and capacity each of us bring to every interaction. It’s the opposite of a “deficit-based approach,” which sees community development more as an act of charity where one group has power and expertise and the other has none. It flips the traditional idea of an “expert” on its head. Watching this approach in action really made me see the potential for positive social change that the approach offers.
How has COVID-19 impacted the work of the Learning Exchange in the Downtown Eastside?
While the Learning Exchange’s building has been temporarily closed, we’ve been offering online activities, as well participating in advocacy and outreach. We are part of a network of Downtown Eastside organizations that are problem-solving together around community needs.
Also, we’ve had more capacity to develop the Downtown Eastside Research Access Portal (DTES RAP), which provides public access to more than 900 research items related to the DTES. It’s a project of the Making Research Accessible initiative, which is led by the Learning Exchange in partnership with the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre and other UBC and external stakeholders.
How does CBR fit with the university’s strategic priorities and mandate?
UBC’s Strategic Plan is focused on three themes – inclusion, collaboration and innovation. Community-based research at the Learning Exchange delivers on all three. In support of Strategy #20: Co-ordinated Engagement, we use an innovative approach that is based in inclusion and collaboration and that delivers results that are credible and substantial. Community expectations for the public relevance of research have increased. The Learning Exchange is here to support researchers and community to exchange their skills and capacities for credible and mutual benefit.
What’s one thing you want people to remember about your role?
If you are considering conducting research related to the DTES, let’s talk. It can be complicated but the Learning Exchange is here to work through those complexities with you. It’s worth it.