Rise of The Street-Level Think Tank

If you think researchers wear white lab coats, meet Rosalia Chavez who dons T-shirt, jeans, and platform sneakers to interview city officials about why the schoolyards here are sometimes as menacing as the mean streets of the city itself.

If you think researchers work in an ivory tower and rarely intersect with daily life, meet Anne Brisano. She has figured out why a large industrial park with more than 5,000 jobs hasn't helped her low-income neighborhood in St. Paul, Minn., lower its high unemployment rate.

Both are examples of an expanding network of street-level researchers around the United States. They are generating community-based research and finding solutions to local problems that traditional research institutions haven't provided.

"Quietly, with no one really noticing, there is a system emerging that can be responsive to these intensely local problems. It's not speculative stuff, it's urgent," says Richard Sclove of the Loka Institute. Loka is a nonprofit organization in Amherst, Mass., that studies this growing sector of local, socially oriented, applied research.

The US has a formidable research-and-development infrastructure already in place. It spends nearly $200 billion per year in combined federal and private funding. Yet with the cold war over, many critics feel the research community should more rapidly shift its focus to social issues.

While the fastest-growing sector of government-supported research is health, some 53 percent of federal funding remains devoted to defense-related issues, according to Al Teich, director of science policy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington. Within that research world, community-based activities are a drop in the bucket. Loka, in a report released this week, estimates that 50 to 60 centers across the country are spending about $10 million on neighborhood issues.

But many analysts regard it as an increasingly important vehicle for solving seemingly intractable local problems that often fly beneath the radar of the more established research industry.

"It's a fundamentally important approach," says Anne Petersen, senior vice president for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Mich., and former deputy director of the National Science Foundation. "In the post-cold-war era, we've talked about the need to turn our attention to social issues.... The community-based research organization is one effective route for that."

Teen researchers

Rosalia Chavez knows little about the cold war, but as a teen about to enter her junior year in an Oakland, Calif., high school, she knows firsthand what's wrong with the troubled school system. "The security patrol at our school isn't working. They get high and get into fights with the kids," she says.

Rosalia is one of 15 high school students from across the city working this summer with Pueblo, a neighborhood organization attempting to improve school safety. They are researching the school budget and looking for ways to train the security staff. The Pueblo project is typical of community research in that it starts with a need, or problem, identified by neighborhood residents themselves. And then it involves people directly affected by the issue.

In Florida, the Jacksonville Community Council surveys the school board, the mayor's office, and local residents each year to determine what problems need addressing. "Is it timely? That's a key question for us," says executive director Lois Chepenik. Research in 1994 about basic city services - police, fire, garbage - found inequities that led to an "equity index" solution. That has been used in recent years to make the distribution of basic city services more equitable to all of Jacksonville's neighborhoods.

Search for practical solutions

Most community research organizations are born of a spirit of local activism and have their own political orientation. The Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago, for instance, does work related to the environment, based on the premise: "Environmental improvement, done right, pays off. It's not a cost," says Scott Bernstein, founder of the organization.

In St. Paul, the focus is economic development. When several major employers left the area in the 1960s and 1970s, a new industrial park was built and sagging employment seemed to have found its answer. But unemployment levels failed to drop, and the community couldn't figure out why. The Riverview Economic Development Association, a neighborhood group, conducted three months of research, talking to employers of the industrial park as well as others. They determined that most entry-level jobs in the area required a high school degree and most job-seekers didn't have one. The group went to the School Department and persuaded it to open a high school equivalency program.

The Riverview project was backstopped by a consortium of local universities called the Neighborhood Planning for Community Revitalization, which reviews research proposals and helps neighborhood groups decide which are likely to have impact. It then helps construct the research methodology and offers guidance throughout the process as well as synthesizing the results.

That kind of backstopping by either local universities or larger organizations is typical of how many community organizations work. Loka is working to stitch them into a network that can share knowledge and practices. "It's obvious it's growing now and it's hit a sort of critical mass," says Sclove.

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