Researchers Need Community Partners to Create Lasting Initiatives

Researchers Need Community Partners to Create Lasting Initiatives

This post was co-authored by Karlena D. Ochoa, Ph.D., & Andres S. Bustamante, Ph.D.

Psychology researchers are eager to design interventions, develop curricula, and suggest policy changes for communities. Yet, too often, interventions from developmental science don’t hold up as expected when put into practice.

As researchers, we need to shift our focus from designing for communities to designing with communities. To create lasting initiatives, multiple community stakeholders may be required, each making unique contributions that the others could not.

This post describes a collaboration between multiple organizations in Santa Ana, CA, to design and implement Playful Learning Landscapes (PLL) installations. PLLs are created with and for children and families to provide informal STEM learning opportunities through play and caregiver-child interactions in the everyday spaces families spend time (e.g., parks, bus stops, grocery stores).

We built relationships with three key partners: families from the community, the leadership of a local community organization named the Santa Ana Early Learning Initiative (SAELI), and officials from the City of Santa Ana.

Families contributed something to the project that only they could—themselves. We held seven workshops in which families from Santa Ana discussed their cultural values, views on early learning, and lived experiences, and generated ideas for how to incorporate them into physical installations in their community. Each session involved group discussions and activities (e.g., storytelling or crafting) facilitated by Spanish-speaking members of our research team. For example, in one activity parents recalled and told stories about childhood games and truly relished in sharing these memories.

Through these sessions, families created PLL installations reflecting community values and history. For example, families decided to integrate a popular cultural game, Loteria (similar to the game Bingo), into a bus stop to reflect cultural values and promote intergenerational learning. A series of co-created bus stop designs will be installed this year in Santa Ana.

The directors of SAELI brought expertise and knowledge about the community and have valuable insights about working with local families. They connected us with the parents who participated in our design sessions and continuously supported the process. We benefited from the directors’ trust with families from years of work, allowing us to continue this project during a global pandemic.

They also led focused sessions to navigate our team past difficult barriers. For example, several of our early sessions intentionally focused on the location of the installations rather than their design. The directors held a session discussing the process for choosing the location of the installations, which highlighted connections between this project (focused on early STEM learning) and other initiatives of the organization and the city to leverage existing resources and momentum. Our approach offered a community-level framing to the decision instead of an individual family or neighborhood-level view. This put families at ease and allowed for a focus on the installation design.

Once the designs are finalized, we needed a strong partnership with the city to implement and sustain them. The Santa Ana Administrative Service Manager attended project meetings, provided feedback on ideas, and highlighted synergies with existing city projects. For example, the city was planning renovations of several parks and wanted to implement our designs so that the project’s ideas are disseminated with the existing city budget and built into their normal renovation process, increasing the sustainability of this model. The synergy between the city and our team ensured our access to public space to develop and install these PLLs. In return, we design and build culturally situated community spaces for families to learn and play together. In addition, the city has committed to own and maintain the PLLs so they are disseminated and sustained.

Each of these community stakeholders made critical contributions to this project that they were uniquely positioned to make. The project would be less impactful, less sustainable, or simply would not have happened without each partner’s contributions.

Lab-based research plays an important role in developmental science, however local knowledge and strategic partnerships can enhance the relevance, impact, and sustainability of interventions. For example, traditional lab-based interventions may not have considered the cultural history of families, navigated difficult conversations critical to implementation, or had partnerships with the city to maintain an intervention. Building strong relationships with community members and stakeholders enables researchers to create scalable, feasible, and meaningful interventions. Put more simply—we’re better together.

Andres Bustamante, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at the University of California Irvine’s School of Education, and directs the Social, iTerative, Engaged, and Meaningful (STEM) Learning Lab.

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