On researching Black and Brown communities

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Dr. Yasser Arafat Payne, Social-Personality Psychologist and Associate Professor of Black American Studies at the University of Delaware.

As more and more issues affecting communities of color, like police violence, and incarceration are highlighted in the media, due in part to the protests generated by groups like #Blacklivesmatter and the Dream Defenders, we are also inundated with research data and statistics. A lot of that data is generated by academic researchers who are not part of the communities they study, and those under study are “subjects” of the research and have little or no say or participating in or framing the studies.

Though I often reference research data in what I write about here, I have rarely discussed “research methods” and my own thoughts about the best theoretical approaches to doing sociological and anthropological research in our neighborhoods. I am a staunch proponent of what is called “Participatory Action Research (PAR) which engages researchers and community members as equal members of a process involving both study and taking action.

Rather than cite a long list of studies, I want to introduce you to an ongoing project led by Dr. Yasser Arafat Payne, in Wilmington Delaware.

Yasser Arafat Payne is an Associate Professor in the Department of Black American Studies at the University of Delaware. Dr. Payne completed his doctoral work at the Graduate Center-City University of New York where he was trained as a social-personality psychologist. Also, Dr. Payne completed a postdoctoral fellowship funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIH-NIDA) whereby he worked on a re-entry and intervention based research project in New York City’s largest jail, Rikers Island—a project designed to reduce: (1) recidivism, (2) drug use, and (3) other risky behavior leading to HIV/AIDS.

Dr. Payne has organized a street ethnographic research program centered on exploring notions of resilience and resiliency with the streets of Black and Brown America using an unconventional methodological framework entitled: Street Participatory Action Research (Street PAR)—the process of involving street-identified persons or members of this population in the process of activist-based research. Street identified populations are typically framed in a monolithic way and Dr. Payne through his research has found great emotional, psychological and developmental variation. His work seeks to break through stereotypical barriers and images of Black and Brown people in the criminal justice system, so that transition back in the community and opportunities for upward mobility are successful.

His work was highlighted in a feature article at Delaware Today:

Trained as social psychologist at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, Payne, an associate professor of Black American Studies at the University of Delaware, is, foremost, a street ethnographer, but of a different kind. Most street ethnographers come from outside the
populations they study. They develop a theory or determine questions they want to answer, then design a program of study or experimentation.
Payne and members of the Wilmington Street PAR family—and he very much considers them family—are the people they study. They have an insider’s view of poor, black, urban neighborhoods, so they know what questions to ask. More important, the people they survey and interview respond candidly because they face researchers who are like themselves, community members who understand their experiences. When it comes to understanding how people deal with poverty and why they commit crime—how they cope with structural violence—this is important. Participatory research can mean the difference between conjecture, speculation or unsupported theories—there are many when it comes to race and class—and real knowledge.

Meet Dr. Payne in this TedTalk as he explains Street PAR.

Challenging the dominant arguments in the literature, Dr. Payne asserts that all of the streets of Black and Brown America are resilient. He aims to break down stereotypical barriers and images of black and brown people in the criminal justice system, so that transition back in the community and opportunities for upward mobility are successful. Dr. Payne’s work is centered on humanizing those in the criminal justice system and getting undergraduate and graduate students as well as faculty, service providers and/or everyday residents to work more closely with those in the criminal justice system.

The People’s Report: Trailer [Participatory Action Research]

Visit The People’s Report in full to explore the results and action items. You can read the Executive Summary which includes 17 recommendations to address: (1) Physical Violence; (2) Structural Opportunity; (3) Law Enforcement/Criminal Justice System; and (4) Street Outreach and Continued Community-Centered Research and Activism.

I have seen the positive results of PAR in my own work on projects exploring infant mortality in Harlem, and working with medical anthropologists dealing with both HIV/AIDS harm reduction and drug use.

Kudos to Dr. Payne and his community team.

Cross-posted from Black Kos



  1. One of the things I appreciate the most about PAR – is that it strips away the idea that only those people with academic degrees can do research and make valuable contributions to both deeper understanding and taking action.

  2. This is great. People listening to/working with the folks who’ve got “the problem” – so getting the issues right. So many times very well-meaning people come from the outside, decide they know how to “fix” things, apply the “fix” – then blame the people when it doesn’t work. Some of the early Settlement Houses for example. I’ve got a white working class perspective so when reading about the Settlement House work I could understand why they thought what they thought – but I had a very wise mother who even though also white and working class explained to me why it didn’t work. That looking in from the outside lets you see A problem but usually not THE problem. PAR will find the right answers because it’s looking at the right issue(s) to be dealt with.

    • Thanks – I don’t normally write about research methods – however PAR goes beyond the academic – and has very practical uses.

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