By Sarah McVicar
Institute for Community Engagement and Scholarship
In 2015, Metropolitan State Human Services Professor Roberta Gibbons and residents of the Little Earth community embarked on a rare, shared project that would impact them both in fundamental and enduring ways. Like Little Earth itself – the only Native-preference Section 8 housing community in the nation – the initiative was unique from the start.
It began with a proposal for a small research grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to gather data about the drivers and causes of violence at Little Earth – and potentially secure a subsequent larger grant to fund community programming.
At the heart of the project was the unique way in which it embodied its model of Community-Based Participatory Action Research (CBPAR) – what the Healthy City program defines as a “collaborative approach to research that involves all stakeholders throughout the research process…” and “aims to address the practical concerns of people in a community and fundamentally changes the roles of researcher and who is being researched” – or, as Gibbons describes it: “Research with a community rather than research on a community.”
“This was a project that followed very true to the model of participatory action research,” Gibbons said. “Working with the community, focusing on action, you really learn more because there’s trust and investment. The impact of this kind of research can be far greater than research that is just about numbers and publishing – especially for the community.”
Also central to the model was the convening of critical community stakeholders who have not historically worked together, including notably the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) and Minneapolis Park Police.
“[One of the things] that surprised me the most was the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office and MPD’s willingness to work with us to try to change perspectives, to engage the community,” said former interim Little Earth Executive Director and Participatory Action Research (PAR)-Team member Jolene Jones, whose steadfast leadership was crucial to the project’s launch and continued growth. “Our biggest goal was to protect our children [notably, some 50%-plus of Little Earth residents are under 21, and half of those are children under the age of 10]. We wanted to show them that this [violence] isn’t normal…gunfire in the middle of the day isn’t normal. We wanted to show them a better way of living.”
The project’s early work included the formation of the PAR-Team – now SCOUT (Safe Communities of United Tribes) Team – where Dr. Gibbons worked with Little Earth residents to discuss the foundations of research, pertinent resources, and the answers needed at Little Earth.
For Jones, who had worked with researchers before, Gibbons’ willingness to listen and acknowledge what she didn’t know was “refreshing,” and a key aspect of the successful partnership.
“Most people come in and think they know everything,” Jones said. “[Gibbons] was willing to listen and change.”
True to the participatory action research model, the community was involved in driving each aspect of the research. The team chose to gather initial data through a door-to-door household community survey – a shared decision that was not made lightly.
“We wanted to make sure it was something the community was invested in, “ said original PAR-Team member Margarita Ortega. “At the time a lot of data was gathered [by others] but nothing would come back to the community…We wanted to do something ourselves.”
The truly unique nature of the partnership was further illuminated at the DOJ-sponsored training of teams who received the initial research grant, where – along with Gibbons and other researchers – Little Earth was the only community represented. “We were the only ones that had an actual community member present,” recalled resident and former PAR-Team/SCOUT Safety Champion Coordinator Cassandra Holmes. “People would run up and ask, ‘How did they get you here?’ I said, ‘What do you mean? We’re part of the team!’”
The team’s work was a success, and the results of the initial survey were vital in securing the subsequent Dept. of Justice programming grant which funded the continued work of the research team along with a number of other initiatives aimed at reducing violence and building community, including peacemaking/conflict resolution and a Pathway Advocate working with youth and their families.
One key focus was improving the relationship between police and community members – one that had been fraught with mistrust.
As part of her work with SCOUT, Holmes emphasized the importance of creating fun, community-centered events – like a Friday night drive-in movie and meet-and-greets where community members could interact with police in a relaxed environment. One such event included games like badminton, bean bag toss, and free food like popcorn and cotton candy where SCOUT members partnered with police to run the booths.
Additional events included “Circle Time” at the main bus stop on Monday and Friday mornings with sage, drummers, juice and snacks for kids on their way to school and community-wide Narcan trainings (Narcan, or naloxone, is a medication administered to reverse opioid overdoses, a significant issue at Little Earth).
Holmes described how once community members saw the work other residents were doing, they started proactively reaching out to address community issues. Holmes said, “We would be out in our bright shirts letting people know we were here…people knew we were trying to work with the police and bring them into our community but nobody called us snitches…People loved that we were community members involved, that we had youth involved.”
In 2019, following the ongoing work of SCOUT and the other initiatives funded by the programming grant, the team administered a follow up survey to compare to the initial survey data, measure progress on targeted areas, and ultimately inform decisions for further community action.
As an incentive for completing the survey, an Institute for Community-Engaged Scholarship grant funded 200 $10 Cub Foods Gifts for participants (gift cards for both surveys were also funded through a donation from the East Phillips Improvement Coalition). The follow up survey – which garnered responses from a remarkable ~85% of households visited – ultimately found progress in all targeted areas, including procedural justice, police legitimacy, and collective efficacy.
While the results are promising, as with many things of late, the work has been complicated by COVID – as well as the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police, which hit especially close to home given the relationships the team worked so hard to help community members cultivate with police (from the very same precinct). Despite the challenges and the ambiguity around the project’s future directions, residents – and Gibbons – are hopeful that progress will be ongoing, which wouldn’t be possible without the deep community investment. “I always resort back to the love I have for the community,” Ortega said. “I walk around here just to look at the people and they remind me how much I love them. That’s what keeps me going when I’m afraid.”
“If this work isn’t instilled in the community it won’t be able to continue,” said Makenzie Nolan, the Director of Safety Programming funded through the grant. “But if together [we] can plant enough seeds, that’s a success and I think that’s what we’ve done.”
Ortega, too, frames the work in terms of cultivating a foundation for continued community growth: “Our goal wasn’t just to address the safety issues, but to empower community members and give them the skills and resources to address community safety themselves. We’re building more leaders.”
Indeed, fostering meaningful and lasting change is central in the CBPAR model, as is recognizing and elevating knowledge that comes from within community. “When you come from a poor background…you feel like[people with additional privilege] have more knowledge, more everything,” Ortega said, regarding the importance of empowering community voices. “But really your knowledge is just different and it does matter.”
According to Ortega, residents are now assuming ownership of the work: “It’s mostly resident-driven now…now residents feel like their voices are heard and they can actually be a part of creating something and make a difference.”
Said Holmes, “As community members, we’re still moving forward….[the work] is Little Earth’s; it’s ours, it’s our residents’. We did that.”
Little Earth residents, though, are not the only ones who have been inspired by the unique partnership. Gibbons, too, feels a personal commitment to the community and building on the foundation laid by their joint work. Prior to beginning the project – which she noted has garnered national attention – “I didn’t know much about Little Earth except that I used to bike by it every day to work….Now I feel like Little Earth is my second family.”
Gibbons expressed her admiration for the community members she has had the opportunity to work with – and the lasting impact of the connections and learning she has taken from their partnership over the past several years.
“I remember applying for the grant,” Gibbons said, “and saying if we get it, my life will never be the same...What I’ve mostly learned is the strength and resilience of community members – many of whom are suffering historical trauma and still trying to do the work, being good parents, caring and making the best decisions they can for themselves and the community.”
At present, Gibbons is staying on as a member of the cross-sector team – an advisory body for violence prevention, safety, and community-building work – and looking for ways to move forward and bring in new funding. “I’ve made it really clear that I want to continue to be involved in the community,” Gibbons said. “I don’t want the grant ending to be the end of me.”
Ultimately, Ortega believes the work has had a profoundly positive impact for Little Earth and its residents: “The empowerment that came from the project, the community engagement; what it brought to the community – it brought our voice back, it brought our spirit back. It’s a blessing.”