The Value of Community Partnerships in Academic Research

The Value of Community Partnerships in Academic Research

By: Leila Rodriguez

Early on in our training as anthropologists, we learn that ethnographic fieldwork is the pillar of anthropological inquiry. To best understand a community from their own perspective, we immerse ourselves in their lives, and use a host of research methods including participant observation and interviewing to learn about their worldview.

Photo of a latino mother and child

Photo taken by Amanda Rossman for the Enquirer.

Penetrating a social group to which you do not belong is not easy, and we are taught the value of gatekeepers and key informants.

Gatekeepers are those individuals who formally or informally have the ability to allow us access to their community. In a tribe, a formal gatekeeper could be a chief. In a high-crime neighborhood, an informal gatekeeper could be a gang leader. I have encountered both in my own research, and without their consent I could not have conducted research in their communities.

Key informants facilitate research too. They are experts in their own culture and help us to interpret what we observe, and navigate the social landscape in their communities.

Partnering with Su Casa, a local migrant-serving organization

My current research examines the local integration of unaccompanied, underage Central American migrants who left their poverty and violence-stricken home communities. Rather than simply relying on gatekeepers and key informants for this project, I decided to do something very different: to partner with Su Casa, a local migrant-serving organization that is involved in all stages of my research.

Su Casa has helped or will help:Su Casa Hispanic Center of Cincinnati

  • craft my research questions
  • give input into the specific research instruments I employ
  • provide logistical support
  • interpret the research results

Although my project is still in the earliest stages, I have already noticed how transitioning from the reliance on gatekeepers and key informants to a community-based, participatory research project is improving the quality of my work.

My current project involves the most vulnerable population with which I have ever been involved. While there are multiple ethical concerns and challenges in working with such a population, I believe that precisely because they are so vulnerable they cannot be excluded from our research. Our collective understanding of the integration of immigrants, and forms and processes of social inequality will be incomplete without consideration of the experiences of these minors.

My partnership with Su Casa has given my project additional legitimacy in the eyes of the community, as the organization is well-known and trusted. If gatekeepers open the doors to a community, my community partnership has blasted them open. It has expedited communication and cooperation with schools and other community institutions that care about the welfare of these minors, which adds a layer of protection for them. It has refocused my project so that it not only addresses scholarly questions, but so it will provide practical data for local organizations that provide services to, and advocate in favor of, these young migrants.

As my project advances, I anticipate that the benefits of partnering with a community organization will continue to reveal themselves.

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Ferguson, Baltimore and Cincinnati

Ferguson, Baltimore and Cincinnati

By Earl Wright II

On Tuesday, October 4, I will participate on a panel discussion on the implications of the Department of Justice reports on Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland titled, “DOJ Reports on Policing in Ferguson and Baltimore: What They Mean for Cincinnati and the Country.” During the few minutes I have to talk I will focus on two matters:

  • connecting the findings of the recent DOJ reports to an American history of policing that dates back to this nation’s years of reconstruction
  • advising the leadership in Cincinnati to use the findings from the DOJ reports proactively to provide leadership on issues of policing and, more importantly, to learn from the mistakes of police militarization as the trial of Ray Tensing nears and the decision on his guilt or innocence lay in the balance.

Black Codes

The Black CodesIn 1903 sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois wrote about the shadow slavery program that followed the ‘peculiar institution.’ During these years “Black Codes,” de jure and de facto laws severely governing the lives and freedoms of Black Americans, were established. Examples of punishable offenses include the gathering of two or more Blacks in a public area, and being unemployed. Having little to no protection under the law, thousands of men and women were unjustly jailed, some for simply not being gainfully employed. Their labor was literally sold to the highest bidder in the region. The successful bidder (i.e., plantation owner) then legally controlled the (slave) labor of the persons whom he purchased from local officials. This was practiced during the early twentieth century.

What say we today?

This practice is still in play today. One can look at laws connected to the American drug war that has led to a supply of able bodied persons whose ‘talents’ have been and continue to be utilized in private and government prisons for the production of various products at minimal expenditures. As it relates to Ferguson, Missouri, government officials purposely used the criminal justice system to extract monies from its primarily Black citizens to supplement the local budget.

The targeting of Blacks in this manner is eerily similar to that of years past. This gives one pause to raise the question, “How far removed from the reconstruction era are we?”

Militarized Use of Force

Ferguson shootingIn Ferguson and Baltimore the world witnessed how the militarization of an institution sworn to “serve and protect” the members of its community engaged in militaristic tactics designed for combat against enemies of this nation and in locations far from our borders. The militarized use of force against the members of ones community should not occur, unless the force employed against the policing community are also militarized. Notwithstanding the latter, the military rule over American communities must not be allowed.

What has the city of Cincinnati learned?

As the city of Cincinnati prepares for the trial of the University of Cincinnati police officer charged with killing Samuel DuBose one must ask the question, “what has the city of Cincinnati learned from the tactics of community engagement observed in other cities?” One can only hope that the powers that be in this city and region have carefully and clearheadedly examined the best practices in community engagement and policing. For if they have not then the name Cincinnati may, again, be added to the string of other cities whose citizens expressed displeasure with their treatment via the criminal justice system in ways that some may deem unpleasant. In order to prevent such unfortunate situations some of us at the University of Cincinnati are participating in a unit, The Cincinnati Project, that may serve as an intermediary between residents and the policing community.

The Cincinnati Project Serves as a Bridge

The Cincinnati Project (TCP) was established in 2014 to serve as a bridge between community stakeholders and institutional units at the University of Cincinnati such that those relationships can be (re)established and/or improved. The primary goal of TCP is to offer the skills and talents of members of the university community to the larger Cincinnati community whereby specific research needs of grassroots members of the community can be met. Moreover, TCP engages with community stakeholders as equal partners, not as a body of scholars single-mindedly focused on exploiting members of the community for our personal gain. However, as it relates to matters of social justice broadly and this panel discussion specifically, the goal of TCP is to serve as an intermediary whose efforts are useful in the maintenance of a prosperous and forward moving Queen City.

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Completing a community-partnered project has been one of the highlights of my academic career

Completing a community-partnered project has been one of the highlights of my academic career

By Jenny Zhen Duan

Being part of the Community Psychology class and completing a community-partnered project has been one of the highlights of my academic career. Most often, students are only presented with theoretical information on how to promote positive social change. I was glad that part of the course involved hands-on experience by joining a community partner (Cincinnati Health Department) and using our skills as researchers for a greater good.

Community Psychology Student Jenny Zhen Duan

Jenny Zhen Duan was a student in the UC Community Psychology class Spring of 2016

Initially, I thought that it would be difficult to make decisions because the class was large and multidisciplinary. However, I found that the opposite occurred. Students worked very well together and built on each other’s strengths, very similar to true community-based efforts. For example, during the planning process, we were deciding whether to recruit undergraduate students or community members as research participants. While recruiting students would have been probably easier for us as a team, we felt very passionately about going to the community and reaching out to those who would benefit from the sexual health information we were providing. We found it to be important to “give voice” to members who are less represented in research. Therefore, my classmates and I worked with their contacts in order to recruit participants out in the community. These contacts, or organizations, included social service agencies, churches, and residents from a low-income neighborhood in Cincinnati.

I believe that by doing this, we enriched our research quality while also making us feel more ownership of the research project itself, which is another crucial component of community-partnered research. It was satisfying to apply the same principles that we were learning in class towards a project aimed at improving sexual health. It was even more rewarding to work and network with other like-minded individuals committed to bridging the gap on health disparities and feeling that the community will benefit from this work.


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Social media mobbing diminishes the quality of public discourse

Social media mobbing diminishes the quality of public discourse

By Jeff Blevins

In July, I wrote about social disparity and social media, using an example of hLeslie Jones compared to Harambeow groups of people flocked online to attack The Cincinnati Zoo when it killed Harambe, a silverback gorilla, to save the life of a young boy who fell into its exhibit.   Commenters were especially vitriolic towards the African American mother of the boy, who was blamed for not properly looking after her children. Later that month, Saturday Night Live comedian and Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones was asking Twitter to intervene and act against the many people who were sending her insulting and racial tweets, including the one shown on the right comparing her to Harambe.

Not too long after this, both Leslie Jones and The Cincinnati Zoo shut down their Twitter accounts, at least temporarily defeated by the social media mobs.

Social media mobbing

The phenomenon known as social media mobbing occurs when a group of people converges on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms around an issue that they are angry about, or a person that offends them. The mob relentlessly trolls that person, or dominates discussion of the issue with a barrage of insults, arguments and memes. Meanwhile, the voices in favor of more respectful public dialogue on social media may tend to spiral into silence for fear of being mobbed.

Social media outlets should consider community standards

Jeff Blevins speaking about social media mobbing on Fox 19

In an interview with Kara Sewell on Fox 19 Cincinnati’s morning news program, I join many others to call into the question the quality of public discourse taking place in certain venues on social media. Since there are no universally accepted community standards online, social media outlets should consider more carefully how they want to define and enforce standards for their own platform. If they do not prioritize this issue at least for moral and ethical reasons, then they should do so for their own profitability and long-term reputation.

“Most mobbing targets are successful women of color”

In the Leslie Jones case, Twitter eventually banned the mob leader from using its service. But, that is just one high profile incident; what happens to those with less public influence when they report mobbing? In an interview for NBCNews on August 26, Debjani Roy, the deputy director of Hollaback, a nonprofit committed to ending harassment in public places and the organization behind Heartmob, said, More often than not the targets are successful women of color because these harassers and abusers don’t believe in our full and equal humanity. This is a deeper problem, and the various expressions of it online are repugnant. These people who are doing this are not trolls, they’re harassers, abusers and in the case of rape and death threats, criminals.”

Gabby Douglas at the Rio Olympics

Gabby Douglas, in an interview with Rachel McRady and ET about the social media mobbing she experience on Twitter during the Rio Olympics, “I tried to stay off the Internet because there’s just so much negativity,” she said. “Either it was about my hair or my hand not over my heart [on the medal podium] or I look depressed. … It was hurtful. It was hurtful. It was. It’s been kind of a lot to deal with.” 

We have the power to maintain positivity in public dialogue

As one of The Cincinnati Project Scholars this year, I will continue to study the role that social media plays in public dialogue about social justice related issues. Social media can play a meaningful role in empowering everyone in our community. Like those who supported Leslie Jones by the creation and use of #LoveForLeslieJ, we have the power to push back against the crude and harassing posts with words (and images) of encouragement and support.

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I want to be an active part of social change in my city

I want to be an active part of social change in my city

By Kelsie Gerard
Junior, Sociology
Hometown: Cincinnati

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked by those involved with The Cincinnati Project to participate as a researcher at the annual NAACP Conference. This was a valuable experience for me as an undergraduate student because it was my first time attending a conference.

Kelsie Gerard

Kelsie Gerard was one of the students who attended the NAACP Convention in Cincinnati.

While at the conference, it was hard for me not to notice that I was one of the youngest people there, but attending with five of my peers from the University of Cincinnati allowed me to ease into the work more comfortably.

The varying levels of experience my peers have in researching and attending conferences helped make me feel less intimidated by the professional setting.

This was a great opportunity for me to practice my note-taking and listening skills, and learn how to actively apply them to research.

I wanted to be a part of this research process because I want to be an active part of social change in my city. I learned about the history of community-police relations in Cincinnati from the original negotiators of the Collaborative Agreement, and listened and shared countless stories of personal experiences with people from communities all over the country.

I found a sense of unity and connectedness in sharing similar experiences and feelings with everyone in the room, and it makes me realize that I am not in this fight alone.

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Social media and social justice movements

Social media and social justice movements

By Jeff Blevins

Today, everyone can be a storyteller. Social media and mobile streaming applications have the potential to change the relationship between news media and the public in significant ways, as virtually everyone now has the ability to document and live stream events to a global audience. To say the least, social media has become a primary venue for public commentary about current events, disrupting the gatekeeping power once held by national news outlets.

Social disparity in social media


Harambe, a western lowland gorilla, who was fatally shot to protect a 4-year-old boy who had entered its exhibit at The Cincinnati Zoo. (Jeff McCurry / AP)

In an article I wrote for The Cincinnati Herald, I point out the social disparity expressed in the incident that happened at The Cincinnati Zoo with a child and Harambe, and the incident that happened at Walt Disney World with a child and an alligator. Why was there an uneven expression of empathy towards the parents in both of these cases? What effect does this expression have on our communities and our political infrastructure?

Instant imagery and commentary in police shootings

Social media provided instantaneous imagery and commentary in the most recent police shootings. Diamond Reynolds live-streamed the shooting of her fiancé, Philando Castille, when they were pulled over by police for a broken taillight in Falcon Heights. Videos were posted online when police in Baton Rouge shot Alton Sterling, prompting an investigation from the justice department.

Civil unrest followed the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson in the summer of 2014. As the hashtag #Ferguson trended on Twitter, national and international news outlets followed social media activity in covering the protests, looting and militarized police response.

Sam DuBose

Sam Dubose (Photo courtesy of WCPO)

And in Cincinnati last summer, Sam DuBose, an unarmed black motorist, was shot and killed during a traffic stop by Ray Tensing, a white University of Cincinnati police officer. Local community groups led by @BlackLivesCincy and @theIRATE8 quickly mobilized on social media to decry the incident and confront competing narratives that it was justified.

Studying social media in social justice movements in Cincinnati

As one of The Cincinnati Project scholars, over the course of the upcoming academic year I will examine the role of social media in social justice movements in Cincinnati and share what I learn through a series of commentaries for local news media, conference presentations, and research papers.

A primary goal of this study is to understand how social justice groups and the public use social media to provide a more diverse array of commentary about the meaning and implications of civic activity, as well as assess the quality and clarity of their discourse on social media through qualitative textual analysis. I aim to show how historically marginalized groups have exercised their First Amendment rights in ways we haven’t seen before.

I also hope to discern more specific lessons about the power and utility that social media can play in civil discourse about social justice. I look forward to bringing the results of this study outside the university and sharing them with social justice groups and the public, who may rely on social media platforms as a primary means of expression. Understanding the impact of our social media channels and the power of our voices can improve the informational, communicational, and relational livelihood of everyone in our community.


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The Cincinnati Project Scholars

The Cincinnati Project Scholars

By Jennifer Malat

With a grant from the Diversity and Inclusion Office and the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Cincinnati, we are able to fund the first class of The Cincinnati Project scholars. The program allows us to support the faculty doing research that aligns with the goals of TCP — research with direct community benefit. We plan to continue the program into the future, ideally funding students’ research or visiting scholars’ research as well.

Our first class of scholars conducts research in a variety of fields, all with the intention of supporting the work of people in Cincinnati:

  • Leila Rodriguez (Anthropology) has partnered with Su Casa to better understand unaccompanied minors in Cincinnati.
  • Carolotte Norwood (Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies) is working with Caracole and studying the experiences of women in high HIV prevalence neighborhoods.
  • Jeff Blevins (Journalism) does research to understand how social media affects public discourse about issues related to inequality.

You can read more about their projects on the TCP Scholars page, and look forward to blog posts about their work.

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At the 2016 NAACP Convention

At the 2016 NAACP Convention

By Jennifer Malat

The Cincinnati Project organized quickly when we received a last-minute invitation to help with a series of community-police relations forums at the NAACP Convention.

We were asked to help with qualitative data collection and analysis—in other words, taking detailed notes and writing summaries—in partnership with community members. UC Arts & Sciences undergraduate and graduate sociology and psychology students assisted with this project. 

UC students at 2016 NAACP Convention

UC students at the NAACP Convention

All of the students have a particular interest in the study of racial inequality and were eager to join the research team. The students benefited not only by being present at a national convention, they (me too!) also had the opportunity to learn from experts outside of UC.

Working with the 2002 Collaborative Agreement

 As part of this research project, we met community organizers and facilitators who worked on the 2002 Collaborative Agreement to improve community-police interactions. In our role of taking notes, we listened to their experiences and noted their advice for NAACP attendees who hope to reduce violence against black citizens. This experience is one example of a goal for The Cincinnati Project: UC researchers and students learning from community experts while providing research service. 

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Cincinnati Voices

By: Earl Wright II

A year ago we formally organized The Cincinnati Project (TCP). TCP encourages and promotes the use of faculty, student and administrator talents to work for economic justice, health equity, racial equality, improved conditions for women, and for other equity issues. Our current project, “Cincinnati Voices, is a major step in that direction.

Community Partners will decide our focus

Instead of deciding what we (university members) believe the most pressing issues of concern are to Cincinnatians, TCP is currently engaged in a baseline study that allows our community partners to decide the topics that we should address first. In so doing, a questionnaire is being developed and will be disseminated throughout the Cincinnati regional community by university and community participants.

This project empowers our community stakeholders and enables them to have a “voice” and representation in activities that will directly impact them. Unlike traditional research models that privilege university knowledge over that of community stakeholders, the main objective of this endeavor is to demonstrate that TCP is committed to an egalitarian relationship with its community partners. It is our expectation that by Spring 2016 the results of this study will be released and a more focused and detailed plan on how to address the needs of residents in the greater Cincinnati region developed.

Thank you Friends of The Cincinnati Project

Our efforts would not be possible without the Friends of The Cincinnati Project. We thank you for the support you have provided thus far and we look forward to continuing our partnership with you to maintain Cincinnati’s status as the most desirable place to live in the United States.

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We are living in a NEW Social Movement

By Jennifer Malat

Never Doubt quote by Margaret MeadRecently I had lunch with 
Patricia Hill Collins, a prominent social theorist at the University of Maryland, and our upcoming symposium keynote speaker. As we talked about the widespread enthusiasm for the idea of The Cincinnati Project, I shared that it has been surprisingly easy to find people who would like to partner with us.

Is this because we are living in a new social movement?

Dr. Collins and I discussed this question. She told me that she worked with students last fall on this very subject. From their research, they concluded that we are, indeed, living in a new social movement. Their specific research and findings will be discussed at a later date.

How do we define a social movement? There have been many efforts by sociologists to clarify the criteria for a social movement. A concise definition by Blumer and Park in 1939 defined social movements as “collective enterprises to establish a new order of life. They have their inception in the condition of unrest, and derive their motive power on one hand from dissatisfaction with the current form of life, and on the other hand, from wishes and hopes for a new scheme or system of living.”*

Sociologists tend to modify the definition when witnessing a new social movement. For example, in the early twentieth century, a social movement polarized around unrest with the current political model. Since around the 1990’s, a “contention” model of social movement is more widely used, and this allows for the definition to include those who are seeking to change culture, not just politics or economics.**

Usually people who are living during a social movement aren’t aware of it. Only later do historians and sociologists tell a story of action that changed the direction of society.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr during Civil Rights Movement

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., leading a civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965.

From 1954– 1968, The Civil Rights Movement conducted coordinated efforts including boycotts, sit-ins, and marches, along with the individual efforts of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Junior. It’s easier to see the collective impact of these efforts after the fact.

Today, we see signs of a social movement in the actions and words from many people of our society: grassroots organizing, government officials speaking out, and artists making demands and expressing the emotions of millions in their work.  Black Lives Matter is the most prominent of the current movement, but attention is also being given to high rates of poverty and inequality as well. Since we have recognized that we are in the midst of a social movement, our challenge to our students, our peers, our partners is, 

“How will we use this social movement to make our community a better place for ALL people?”

*Herbert Blumer. “Collective Behavior,” in Robert E. Park, ed. An Outline of the Principles of Sociology. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1939, p. 199.
**McAdam, Doug, Sidney G. Tarrow, and Charles Tilly. Dynamics of Contention (Cambridge Studies in Contentious Politics). New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
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