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"The Policy Research and Action Group (PRAG)"

January 1993 issue of Poverty & Race

by Charles Saxe and Phil Nyden

At a time when universities increas-ingly are under fire for not con-tributing to the community and not doing research directly relevant to the broader community outside college walls, a group of Chicago-based academics and community activists has been building a collaborative research network that has strengthened ties between researchers and community organizations, in order to better link research and grassroots activism. The Policy Research and Action Group (PRAG) matches re-searchers with community organizations; develops research "apprentices" within community-based organizations; encour-ages undergraduate and graduate stu-dents to consider career options in community-based research; funds grass- roots policy research projects identified and developed by community organiza-tions; and disseminates research results to policy makers and community activ-ists. The project has received strong support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a small start-up grant from the Joyce Foundation, and recently a substantial grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

A characteristic that distinguishes this project from the traditional university--community research relationship is that the process has been very consciously community-driven. All funded research activity must be community-based, and funded activities must involve a col-laborative process-researchers and community-based organizations must work together in identifying issues, research methodologies, data analysis, written reports, and action plans.

PRAG has become a network within which community stereotypes about aloof academic researchers pursuing esoteric, irrelevant research projects have broken down. At the same time, aca-demic stereotypes about community organizations have also been erased. University researchers have become aware that community organizations not only are interested in social policy re-search, but many leaders and staff mem-bers have interests and expertise in var-ious facets of social science research. PRAG has created a forum in which activists from the community have moved into the research office, where they can be equal partners in the selection of research issues and development of methodologies. PRAG is sometimes re-ferred to as a progressive community--based think tank where ideas are ex-changed freely-where both sides feel free to criticize each other's ideas but also where both sides listen to each other, recognizing that more accurate, more useful, more relevant, and more powerful research can come out of such a col-laborative process. By more actively bringing the community into the research process and not treating "community" merely as a place to do research, a source of data, or a variable to be manipulated, the PRAG model represents an alterna-tive to much traditional academic dis-cipline-based research.

The Origins

In the Spring of 1989, Phil Nyden and Wim Wiewel, in consultation with local foundations and with input from local community-based organizations, con-vened a working group of forty indi-viduals from community-based organi-zations, civic organizations, government agencies, labor unions, and academic institutions. Participants were repre-sentative of Chicago's racial, ethnic, gender, and economic diversity. After three half-day meetings over three months, the group identified ten key social policy areas critical to the future of this and other cities. We then com-missioned ten "state-of-the-art" papers to identify what successful community--based working models already exist to address these issues and where additional research could enhance the "tool kit" available to community organizations trying to address pressing urban issues, such as housing availability, residential discrimination, early warning of plant closings, and use of tax dollars in eco-nomic development. Most of these papers were ultimately published in a book edited by Nyden and Wiewel, Challenging Uneven Development: An Urban Agenda for the 1990's (Rutgers Univ. Press, 1991).

After presentation of these papers at a September 1989 conference, three key areas were identified where more inten-sive researcher and community collabor-ation could be beneficial: short-circuiting the gentrification and displacement cycle; strengthening racially, ethnically, and economically diverse urban neighbor-hoods; and use of the service industry to strengthen the city's job base. Two groups were funded by the MacArthur Foundation to address these issues and it is out of this process that PRAG emerged.

The PRAG Network

The PRAG collaborative network consists of researchers and activists from Loyola University of Chicago, DePaul University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and 15 community-based or-ganizations, such as the Southeast Asia Center, Southwest Women Working To-gether, Instituto del Progreso Latino, the Leadership Council for Open Metro-politan Communities, Erie Neighbor-hood House, Association House, Lake-front SRO, and the Oak Park Housing Center. We have also involved over 200 other academics and community-based staff and activists in our programs.

Leadership of PRAG is shared by re-searchers and community leaders. Chair-ing various elements are Phil Nyden, professor of sociology at Loyola Univer-sity of Chicago; Darryl Burrows, execu-tive director of the Citizens Information Service of Illinois; Doug Gills, assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago Center for Urban Economic Development (UIC CUED) and former director of economic development for the Kenwood Oakland Community Or-ganization in Chicago; Larry Bennett, professor of political science at DePaul University; and Lin Von Dreele, execu-tive director for Partners in Community Development. Wim Wiewel, the director of UIC CUED, and a co-founder of PRAG, continues to be involved in the group. PRAG now has a full-time Pro-gram Director, Charles Saxe.

PRAG's Programs

Among PRAG's specific activities are:

A community studies internship pro-gram which provides $2,000 stipends to students to work with community organ-izations in community-defined research projects. Students work with a set of re-search and community mentors through this one-semester process.

An apprenticeship program which -provides a $4,000 stipend to individuals from community organizations to further develop research skills by working with mentors on community projects.

An internship clearinghouse which helps match interns with the research projects of community organizations.

Research assistantships that provide full tuition and an average $7,000 stipend to full-time graduate students interested in working in community-based policy research projects. Strong efforts are made to use this money to attract indi-viduals in community organizations into graduate programs.

Commissioning and publication of community-based studies and social policy "state-of-the-art" papers.

A review panel for community-based research proposals. Parallel to support provided by university research service offices or academic colleagues within 9 particular discipline, PRAG has offered to provide pre-submission review for grant proposals involving collaborative research.

Conferences and workshops that focus on accomplishments of PRAG-funded projects and processes.

Briefings with policy makers and community leaders to disseminate find-ings of various research projects sup-ported by PRAG.

PRAG recently received a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Edu-cation, Urban Community Service Pro-gram, which substantially increases the number of projects we can support. The PRAG grant is one of 18 projects around the country funded through this pro-gram. Ours is distinct in that it focuses on the coordinating and networking functions among academics and com-munity activists. As part of the program, PRAG participates in a national net-work of similar programs, and informa-tion on projects and research models will be disseminated among hundreds of urban universities nationwide.

PRAG?s Projects

The following are examples of projects PRAG has participated in:

Calumet Project for Industrial Jobs, East Chicago, Indiana: In 1988 the Calumet Project for Industrial Jobs, a small mem-bership organization established in 1984 to address Northwest Indiana's growing industrial crisis, was close to brokering a deal for the purchase of the LTV Bar Mill plant in Hammond, saving over 100 jobs. But when PCB's were found on the site the buyer walked away from the deal. The plant closed, the jobs were lost, and the Calumet Project was faced with an environmental problem with potentially disastrous implications for the region.

With the assistance of PRAG's Com-munity Studies Internship Program, the Calumet Project was able to obtain an intern and strengthen their relationship with faculty at Indiana University North-west in Gary and the Grand Cal Task Force, an environmental group in North-west Indiana, to research and develop an environmental early warning system for industrial plants.

Lynn Feekin, executive director of the Calumet Project, observed that the PRAG project increased her organiza-tion's research capacity to bring about changes in the industrial communities because it led to "a relationship with a chemist at the IUN campus, deepened ties with an environmental organization, and produced a new outreach issue in our work with the labor movement." However, she says "probably the main thing we learned is how much good quality research can be done from some-one who is not a 'professional'."

Galewood Montclare Community Or-ganization (GMCO)/Oak Park Housing Center: The Galewood Montclare com-munity on Chicago's northwest side has engaged in a partnership with the Oak Park Housing Center (OPHC) and De-Paul University to promote successful integration of their neighborhood. Using technical assistance from the OPHC and through the efforts of DePaul University sociology professor Ted Manley, GMCO -an all-volunteer organization-has been conducting research on the demo-graphic changes in their community.

A PRAG intern assisted with as-sembling the data on property transfers and conducted a survey of new residents in the area. In addition to the research data, the intern assisted with organizing several community meetings on the issue of demographic change and neighbor-hood stability.

Citizens Information Service of Illinois: As part of an effort to improve voter participation in Chicago low-income neigh-borhoods, CIS has been systematically researching voting patterns in the city during the last ten years for its "Project Participate." In addition to providing an intern, PRAG is convening a "peer review" team to assist CIS in conducting applied research within the parameters of established scientific methods, while integrating community-based organiza-tions in all vital research activities.

Partners in Community Development: PICD is developing an innovative linked deposit revolving loan fund, FaithCorp, to increase accessibility to credit and investment for residents and CBO's in some of Chicago's poorest and most underserved communities. PRAG n sponsoring a graduate research assistant to research and organize elements of FaithCorp, including surveying potential participation by religious organization. and other neighborhood institutions, developing 5-year fund accumulation projections, and developing a strategy for broad-based community participation and marketing the fund.

PRAG Conference: PRAG organizes an annual day-long conference open to all interested parties in the Chicago area. The conference is structured to present research findings and highlight key pro-jects, to solicit input from researchers and practitioners on key policy issues, and to promote further development of the collaborative research model. The next conference will be held in the Fall of 1993.

With new multi-year funding, PRAG hopes to help many other organizations increase their policy research capacity in the Chicago metropolitan area, an strengthen the capacity of progressive grassroots community organizations to bring about change and share that information with other organizations in this and other metropolitan areas.

We are eager to talk with folks in other cities about PRAG or specific projects.

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