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Moving from individual protections to community benefits as part of ethical equitable research and evaluation practice

Conceptual image of a long road with individual smiling faces surrounding it

This is the eighth installment of a 12-part blog series discussing doing evaluation in service of racial equity as part of a collaboration with the Kellogg Foundation. The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the views of any partner organizations, including the Kellogg Foundation.

By now, the call for engaging communities in research and evaluation in meaningful ways seems commonplace. Many institutions are seeking ideas and exploring new ways to support communities in mutually beneficial engagements. Innovation in how communities are engaged as partners in research and evaluation efforts can benefit from how other fields are partnering with communities. We see an opportunity to leverage the concept of community benefit plans/community benefit agreements often used in economic development contexts to rethink ways that research can benefit communities.

Ensuring partner and participant protection at the community level

Community-level protections incorporate and respond to communities’ concerns about the research and evaluation process. The concept of community-level protections acknowledges that harm can occur beyond the individual “subject” level, extending into communities.

As researchers and evaluators, we’re likely familiar with a set of ethical guidelines, such as the Belmont Principles or others that we may use to guide our work. While risks and benefits to individuals are routinely assessed as part of mainstream research practices, the idea of having researchers and evaluators consider how to build in community-level protections and prioritizing how communities benefit from engaging in research or evaluation projects has been somewhat limited to discussion of ethical considerations, particularly within the context of health research and community-based participatory research methods.

Application of community-level protections beyond these contexts is not a widespread practice. There is potential to apply this concept more broadly to efforts that aim to engage communities, particularly those that have been historically excluded from research and are vulnerable, so they too can benefit from these efforts.

We believe that moving beyond ‘do no harm’ to plan for community-level benefits is an important part of an ethical, equity-centered research and evaluation practice.

We have a responsibility to apply these ethical guidelines to protect participants, specifically once they have consented to be involved in the research or evaluation process. However, these ethical concerns tend to singularly focus on avoiding harming people. To be clear, protections to avoid individual and community harm are important. But we think that practicing evaluation and conducting research in service of racial equity also means that we should proactively look to benefit communities. This is important because due to structural inequality, different communities have different resources and ability to protect themselves from harm. To advance equity, we need to ask ourselves, how can we mitigate community-level risks and move towards a benefits paradigm?

What are community benefits agreements?

In the economic development field, community benefits agreements (CBAs) are a useful mechanism used to guide the process by which developers partner with community representatives to set guidance for changes in surrounding communities. A CBA is “an economic empowerment mechanism by which community organizations and representatives can negotiate directly with developers for the benefits most important to them—shaping urban development projects responsibly to improve the lives of the low-income residents and residents of color who bear the burdens of systemic inequities and are typically excluded from or harmed by such projects.”

Sometimes, the agreements represent hard-fought victories by community groups advocating to ensure developers acknowledge community priorities and impacts. Other times, local government entities have policies to address community-level benefits, e.g., the case in Detroit. While local practices may differ, these agreements facilitate 1) making a concrete cost-benefit analysis (defining the problem), 2) proactively expanding the scope of work to build in CBAs, and of course, 3) engaging community stakeholders in defining risks and benefits.

How can we get started with community benefit agreements in research?

Define the problem

Researchers or evaluators can cocreate an agreement with a group of community organizations or members impacted by the work to focus on the research’s potential risks and benefits, specifying to whom and what measures will be taken to ensure accountability of protections and outline how the research or evaluation process will benefit the community. While there is no standard way to create a community benefit agreement, we have experience with adjacent concepts like Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), Tribal and Community Ethics Reviews Boards (TIRBs), and Community Ethics Review Boards (CERBs).

TIRBs within the U.S. have developed ethical research processes aligned with tribal values to protect indigenous knowledge systems and their surrounding community from harm. CERBs emerged in communities where there is an interest in having a unified voice represent community interests in the context of research projects. Although many CERBs are housed within a community academic partnership, we can adapt elements from these approaches even if our project is not part of that type of partnership.  

Expand the Scope

The core practice of having a group of stakeholders review and assess the potential risks and benefits of conducting a body of work by engaging communities is effectively expanding the scope of how research is ‘traditionally’ conducted. With exceptions of those researchers working in close direct contact with communities, generally research training is focused on acquiring discipline-specific knowledge and methodological training. Taking the initiative to design a community benefits plan as part of your project requires planning, curiosity, and flexibility. In the research design phase, building in time for cocreating a plan with community stakeholders will increase costs. Practically, this often means that your funding proposal needs to build in an engagement process.

There is also a need to define who ‘the community’ is, as this is not always a simple process. You may or may not have a connection to the community or relationships. When this is the case, we have found it most useful to remain curious as you make efforts to build your own contextual knowledge and work to engage communities. Co-creating and consultation throughout a project often goes unpaid as sometimes community stakeholders are expected to volunteer their time to participate in research or evaluation. Evaluators or researchers are not typically held accountable for ensuring communities are paid for providing their lived expertise beyond participation in data collection.

Engage Communities

When we engage communities in designing equity-centered evaluations, doing no harm is necessary but not sufficient if the research is to advance equity. We must also navigate community engagement and partnerships within the context of cumulative disadvantages that are experienced by people and communities alike. While we develop community partnerships, we can prioritize infrastructures that benefit community participation:

  • Is the language accessible to community members and are we being transparent enough with our process to enhance trust in that relationship?
  • Have we incorporated plain language guidelines in all materials?
  • Are there enough (and accessible) touch points to build connections?

We should also remain flexible, keeping in mind the broader goal of engaging communities. This helps to endure challenges, big and small. Prioritizing the perspectives of community representatives in this process is key if this practice is to advance equity.

Adopting flexible, context-specific protections and benefits

We are encouraged by the continued interest in and recognition of how community engagement can improve research practices and build knowledge. These practices serve an important role and potential harms can look different for varied communities. We need to plan for adaptations to localized context. Communities are not monoliths and the perception of what is ethical and beneficial in one setting may vary from another. The same caveat is warranted for research and evaluation. Thus, we see ethical practice for community-level protections as iterative, reflexive, and context-specific.

We invite you to think about ways to incorporate community level protections when you are proposing research studies or designing evaluations. Read more in RTI's Transformative Research Unit for Equity's (TRUE) framework for equity-centered research and the Kellogg Foundation’s recent practice guides about what it take to center equity in research and evaluation.

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Daniela Pineda (Senior Director, Center for Equity and Social Justice Research) and Tatiana E. Bustos (Researcher and Facilitator) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.