For most of my research projects, I work hard to apply a community-based participatory research (CBPR) approach. As described by the Detroit Urban Research Center, this is: a partnership approach to research that equitably involves, for example, community members, organizational representatives, and researchers in all aspects of the research process and in which all partners contribute expertise and share decision making and ownership. I do my best to balance research and action towards evidence-based programs or policies, facilitate capacity building to ensure that any positive outcomes of research are sustainable, and disseminate study findings beyond the ivory tower. This often means developing reports with community partners and blogging about them, for instance, and promoting multidirectional translation of science using media that spans beyond the paywalls of scholarly literature.
Substantively, much of my research focuses on environmental health and justice issues. I collaborate with environmental justice (EJ) leaders to document disproportionate environmental health exposures and impacts. This brings another layer of principles to guide me. The Principles of Environmental Justice were defined by the delegates to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit held on October 24-27, 1991, and these have been a north star for the movement since that time. While I work closely with many frontline community members to conduct research and we publish this work together, I do not pretend to be the voice of EJ.
Sometimes these approaches and principles are at odds with traditional academia and, for me, this incongruence certainly plays out in the digital world.
Manuscripts in high impact journals, accolades from professional associations, and grants from federal agencies or noteworthy foundations—in academia we get credit and promotion for these outputs that may or may not benefit communities. CBPR and EJ do not diminish these accomplishments. For example, we often need funding to conduct analyses and publish findings of exposure and health data to advocate for policy changes. However, in many ways, communities cannot always access these findings located in expensive peer-reviewed publications. For those on the tenure track, websites or online resources crafted in plain language developed for diverse audiences may be relegated to service rather than research. And, while the landscape is changing (e.g., NIEHS’s Partnerships for Environmental Public Health), funders do not always place value on what happens with the research after it is done. Is the research accessible online? Can the conference be live-streamed online, especially when registration and travel leave out many folks who have been researched or to whom the findings are most relevant?
Further, academics are taught they must become self-promoters. Of course, digital tools are hugely helpful in these efforts. Self-promotion can increase our publications’ impact factors, help us to connect internationally with other scholars, and generally pry open doors to advance our work. Sometimes self-promotion is the ego at play, adding another line to the CV. Sometimes it can be strategic to inform action. A few weeks ago, I was so excited when a national non-profit I follow on Facebook happened to share one of my open access articles on recurrent flooding in Detroit. I had not sent them the link or notified them of the publication. I immediately forwarded it to my co-author and said, “Look what came across my feed!” These advocates valued our research enough to inform their own work (even in some small way). If my research is intended to advance advocacy, maybe I could better push it out but keep my ego in check.
I am left wondering: How can I reshape my digital identify to align with the principles of CBPR and EJ? I have the luxury of sitting back and cultivating my digital persona in a way that is safe for my career. I watch as my community partners and many EJ advocates put themselves out there, at risk, each day in their communities and in digital spaces. They speak ‘truth to power’ when it’s hard and uncomfortable. They do the work of lifting up issues and solutions. As someone who values the principles of CBPR and EJ deeply—and as someone with notable privilege—self-promotion can feel like I am overstepping in spaces when I should be stepping back to listen. In the same breath, if I really believe in using research for action to address environmental injustice, there is digital work to do as an academic.