Lifting Women’s Voices, The Roofless Women’s Action Research Mobilization and Participatory Action Research

by Marie Kennedy

How can progressive planners work more effectively with low-income women to address urgent issues they face, such as the increasing risk and conditions of homelessness? What alternative models of needs analysis and policy planning lend themselves to increasing the power of those most affected?

The experiences of the Roofless Women’s Action Research Mobilization in Massachusetts (R-WARM) offer lessons to planners, academics and researchers who are looking for some answers. This project is an example of participatory action research, an underutilized approach that responds to the shortcomings of more traditional research and education that do little to change conditions such as homelessness.

Adding Participation and Action to Research

When a group of women planners and service providers in the Boston area wanted to investigate the conditions of homeless women in Massachusetts, they started out to design a standard social science investigation. They had already designed a survey which they intended to administer to a sample of homeless women, when they were challenged to be more participatory by two formerly homeless women in the group. Pointing out the sensitive nature of the desired information, these women soon convinced all involved that the results would be better if the project were undertaken by women who had experienced homelessness themselves.

Action to influence public policy and service delivery as it affected homeless women had always been a goal of the project and as the participatory focus of the project developed it was recognized that the advocacy effort would also be more effective if led by women who had experienced homelessness. Enhancing the leadership capabilities of homeless and formerly homeless women became a major goal of the project.

To enhance the goal of leadership development, formerly homeless women were given the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree at the College of Public and Community Service (CPCS), where I teach, at the University of Massachusetts/Boston. In the Fall of 1994, six formerly homeless women, chosen on the basis of an interview process, enrolled in CPCS and became the core researchers of R-WARM. They have earned academic credits for some of the project work. Grant funds have provided each with free tuition and fees, a stipend, and reimbursement for child care and transportation. I have provided coordination, technical advice and teaching, along with Lynn Peterson of the Women’s Institute for Housing and Economic Development and Nancy Bristel, then with the City of Boston Emergency Shelter Commission. A steering committee was formed to advise the project, comprised half of formerly homeless women and half of representatives of a variety of groups concerned with homelessness, women, poverty, and domestic violence.

The research project has produced comprehensive quantitative and qualitative data about women’s homelessness in Massachusetts. The formerly homeless researchers designed a broad-ranging survey which they administered to 126 currently homeless women. Informational sessions were held in shelters and drop-in centers throughout the state and the formerly homeless R-WARM researchers conducted all of the interviews. Data from the survey was supplemented with information gathered from four focus groups with formerly homeless women. Women respondents came from urban, suburban, and rural communities in various areas of the state. Included were women of different ages, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and single women as well as women with children.

R-WARM released a report of findings and policy recommendations linked to pending legislation in a well-attended event at the Massachusetts State House a year ago. We are now following up with more individualized lobbying efforts and working with various ongoing advocacy groups to incorporate R-WARM findings in their work. The researchers prepared several pamphlets addressing specific areas of concern to the homeless women they interviewed: the civil rights of homeless women; recovering from domestic violence while homeless; parenting issues while homeless; and the particular situation of “single” homeless women, many of whom are trying to regain custody of minor children. Other formerly homeless women have joined Roofless Women (the shortened name by which the transformed advocacy organization is now known) and the group is distributing the pamphlets and doing outreach in shelters and drop-in centers across the state. They are also doing legislative advocacy and work with agencies to improve their service delivery.

All of us involved in R-WARM learned a great deal, not only about the causes and solutions to women’s homelessness, but also about the strengths and challenges of participatory action research. It was constantly challenging for professionals involved in the project to make their technical expertise and broader perspective on the political/economic/social roots of homelessness available to the core group while making sure that ultimate power for directing the project rested with the formerly homeless women.

Another important challenge for us professionals was to give up rigid notions of how things “should be done” in order to maximize the strengths of the participatory research process. For example, standard social science research dictates that a survey should be administered to each respondent in exactly the same way and that the interviewer should not enter into discussion with the respondent, running the risk of distorting responses. However, dialogue is a critical element of participatory research and when the investigator has experienced the problem being investigated, dialogue is a means of discovering the shared nature of a problem and the common ground for action. Dialogue is the basis for eliciting unusually forthright responses, and more detailed and possibly more truthful answers to interview questions. And this is one of the outstanding strengths of this approach to needs assessment.

Another strength was in the formulation of the survey questions themselves. Critical questions were posed that probably wouldn’t have been thought of by an outside professional, and the formerly homeless women also provided a “sensitivity screen” for the wording and ordering of questions.

To date, the most stunning strength of the project has been the growth in self-confidence and skills of the R-WARM researchers themselves. They have become a strong support group. Each of them has become an effective advocate for all roofless women. They have spoken out in many public forums: a legislative breakfast organized around housing issues in Boston, the United Nations Habitat Conference in Istanbul, local colleges and conferences, the Planners Network conference in Brooklyn, the Highlander Center workshop on participatory research in Tennessee, and national homelessness conferences in Washington, D.C. and Texas. Three of the R-WARM researchers have graduated, each winning one of the highest awards granted by the College of Public and Community Service, and two are continuing in graduate school. The others are still pursuing their degrees. Several of the researchers have gained good jobs and all serve on advisory committees and agency boards as a result of their connection to R-WARM.

Aspects of the R-WARM project have become models for other efforts. Faculty at Arizona State are attempting to replicate the project and the project is being featured in the Grassroots Guide to Participatory Research being prepared by the University of Tennessee. This year, R-WARM won the Taking A Stand award from the Boston Women’s Fund and the Opening Doors award from the Women’s Institute for Housing and Economic Development. With the design help of R-WARM researchers, and modeled on the leadership development goals of R-WARM, Project Hope, the Women’s Institute, and the College of Public and Community Service have now established a new program, Women in Community Development, through which another cohort of low-income women are earning college degrees and becoming leading advocates for other low-income women.

Participatory Action Research: A Progressive Approach

Participatory action research is particularly suited to “lifting all the voices.” It’s a process that supports the voices from the margins in speaking, analyzing, building alliances, and taking action. Participatory action research puts those most affected by the problems being researched in the driver’s seat. One group in our society that continues to be marginalized in planning decisions is women, especially low-income women and women of color.

Participatory action research is particularly appropriate for drawing women into effective participation in policy debates and planning decisions that impact their lives and the lives of their families and communities. The way of knowing that women have historically relied on and which was particularly recognized and developed in the support and consciousness-raising groups of the 1960’s and 1970’s, is essential to participatory research theory. As Peter Park wrote in Voices of Change:

“In living with other human beings we come to know them in an interactive sense. This knowledge does not derive from analysis of data about other human beings but from sharing a life-world together — speaking with one another and exchanging actions against the background of common experience, tradition, history, and culture.”

Interactive knowledge makes human community possible. Without a common stock of knowledge of this kind, it is not possible to form social solidarity capable of mutual support and common action.

Participatory research doesn’t turn its back on the type of knowledge that many planning projects rely on solely — quantitative data responding to questions generated by “experts”. However, it insists that the questions be posed by those most affected by the issues being researched and that transformative action result from the research.

Central to participatory research is critical investigation by those most affected into the problems they face and in light of what they wish to achieve. Participatory research is concerned with uncovering the structural causes of social conditions and, through rational discussion and reflection, leads to questions of what is right for the common good. Realization that problems derive from human action lead people to understand that people can also change the way things are. Critique turns into action. Through struggle, people acquire more knowledge, leading to further action, in the process of what Paulo Freire calls “conscientization.”

We can evaluate any planning process by finding out whether it was successful in “lifting all the voices”, in bringing previously marginalized voices into the discussion, in organizing the unorganized to participate. How many people moved from being objects of planning to being subjects in the process? How successful were we as planners in framing a process that is comfortable and encouraging for people to participate, particularly those not used to speaking in public and not facile at articulating their concerns and visions? How culturally sensitive were we to different forms of expression and self-organization? Were we able to successfully confront dynamics of racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, ageism, classism, or other exclusionary patterns of behavior in our society? What practical accommodations did we make to reduce the barriers to participation for groups that have been left out — child care for single mothers, translation for non-English-speaking folks, meeting times that accommodate work schedules, etc.? Overall, how successful were we at nurturing well-informed, genuinely democratic politics and discourse, dialogue about options and the “values” by which those options for policy and design may be evaluated?

Evaluated against these criteria, the Roofless Women’s Action Research Mobilization, through its use of participatory action research, would get high marks.

For more information:

Marie Kennedy with the Roofless Women’s Action Research Mobilization. “A Hole in My Soul: Experiences of Homeless Women,” in Diane Dujon and Ann Withorn, eds. For Crying Out Loud: Women’s Poverty in the United States. Boston: South End Press. 1996, 41-55.

Marie Kennedy and Betsy Reed. “Homeless in Massachusetts.” Dollars and Sense. January/February 1996, 27-29, 39.

Lynn Peterson with Deborah Gray. “Raising the Roof on Research: Case Study of Roofless Women’s Action Research Mobilization.” A 1998 Richard Schramm Paper on Community Development. Available from the Lincoln Filene Center, Tufts University, Medford, MA 02155. $10 (make check payable to the Trustees of Tufts College).

Roofless Women’s Action Research Mobilization. Lifting the Voices of Homeless Women. 1997. Roofless Women, c/o Women’s Institute for Housing and Economic Development, 14 Beacon Street, 6th Floor, Boston, MA 02108. $3.00 (make check payable to WIHED).

Marie Kennedy is Co-Chair of Planners Network and teaches at the College of Public and Community Service, University of Massachusetts/Boston.

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