Joanna Geller
Participatory Action Research challenges racism and bias by involving those most impacted by a problem in the research aimed at solving it.

A recent “This American Life” episode aired the sounds of jeering protests from a suburban gymnasium full of 3,000 mostly White parents, who had recently learned that 1,000 students, mostly African American, would be transferring from the failing school district of Normandy, Missouri (where Michael Brown went to school). The Normandy students and their families had decided that boarding a bus at 5:00 a.m. every day to ride to a school 30 miles from home would be worth their while for a chance at the quality education they had been denied from their own school district, which had been without accreditation for 15 years.

One White parent shouted into the microphone, “We’re not talking about the Normandy School District losing their accreditation because of their buildings, or their structures, or their teachers. We are talking about violent behavior that is coming in with my first-grader, my third-grader, and my middle-schooler that I’m very worried about.” The woman went on to request the installation of metal detectors and drug-sniffing dogs and was met with thunderous cheering and applause.

The stereotypes about Black young people that the White parents in this crowded gymnasium believed in their hearts to be true are not unique to the suburbs of St. Louis. Many Americans accept stereotypes that people of color are lazy, angry, or violent as hard truths; for example, 45 percent of White Americans attributed inferior jobs, incomes, and housing among Blacks, compared to Whites, to Blacks not having the motivation or willpower to pull themselves out of poverty (Marsden 2012). Stereotypes become justifications for denying young people of color access to a quality education, and worse, fuel the implicit biases that take their lives.

In light of the recent high-profile murders of Black boys and teenagers – 18-year-old Michael Brown, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice – it is time for every sector to reflect on its culpability in promoting harmful stereotypes about people of color. In my own field of educational research, researchers’ beliefs – explicit or implicit – about the communities they are studying influence every phase of the research process, from defining the problem to analyzing and interpreting data. According to H. Richard Milner IV, professor of education at the University of Pittsburgh, people of color have been “misrepresented, exploited,” and “silenced” in education research, while “some education researchers have given privileged status to dominant, White voices, beliefs, ideologies, and views” (Milner 2007).

For example, it is commonplace for young people of color to be labeled “at risk” in academic publications, overlooking their strengths, promise, and potential and shifting blame from oppressive systems to individual shortcomings. Even when researchers do acknowledge the systemic roots of educational injustice, their biases often lead them to only see and portray a limited reality; four African-American women scholars argue that Jonathan Kozol’s bestselling book Savage Inequalities, lauded for its emphasis on racial inequities in schools, overlooked the cultural knowledge, resiliency, and sense of agency of East St. Louis residents like themselves (Farmer-Hinton et al. 2013).

Participatory action research (PAR) is one method of educational research that seeks to disrupt harmful stereotypes. PAR entails doing research “with” rather than “on” marginalized people. Whereas in traditional research, an outside researcher gathers relevant data, in PAR, participants impacted by the problem under study are involved in all stages of the research process, collaborating with one another and with researchers to develop the skills and knowledge essential for understanding and taking action on an issue. Enriched by the perspective of those impacted by a problem, the solutions created can ultimately prove more relevant and effective. The very process of collaboration with people from underrepresented communities also challenges researchers’ biases about them, making it harder to unintentionally promote negative stereotypes.

Here’s an illustration of how PAR can interrupt the dissemination of harmful stereotypes by changing how problems are framed and solutions are created. In 2014, four master’s students in Urban Education Policy (UEP) at Brown University conducted a review of twenty studies that were led by high school–age researchers participating in PAR projects (Gwozdzik et al. 2014). Each of these studies focused on issues surrounding school climate; for example, the impacts of post-Katrina school reforms on student experiences in New Orleans high schools, of school closures on students in Philadelphia once they relocate to other schools, and of zero tolerance school discipline policies in Chicago. With support from adult researchers, educators, or nonprofit staff, students created their own research questions, designed survey instruments and interview protocols, and collected, analyzed, and acted upon data.

The UEP students then compared how the youth-driven PAR teams in these twenty studies defined the root causes of poor school climate and identified solutions to an analysis by the U.S. Department of Education (DoE) in its 2014 publication “Guiding Principles: A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline,” a document that was heavily informed by academic research. The team identified common themes in each of the twenty PAR studies, as well as in the DoE study.

The UEP students found that while the federal guidelines identified the causes of poor school climate as mainly technical – for example, a lack of teacher training, clear expectations, and consistent discipline policies – the youth-driven PAR teams discovered that discipline disparities had cultural, political, and social roots. School climate, they found, was degraded by inequitable resources, a lack of opportunities for students to learn about and transform oppressive systems, and an undervaluing of their communities and cultures.

Because the two groups defined the problem differently, the PAR teams and the DoE then identified some very different solutions, as shown in the graphic below. The DoE recommendations were not wrong, and in fact, there was substantial overlap between the recommendations of youth researchers and the DoE. However, PAR enriched the guidelines with the important perspectives of the young people they most directly affect. The St. Louis parent quoted above could read the DoE guidelines and still believe that “deviant” young people of color are the main culprits for unsafe and unsupportive schools (with recommendations such as “Set high standards for behavior” and “Create clear expectations and consequences”). The recommendations that emerged from the PAR studies, on the other hand, explicitly contradict the notion that the angry or violent dispositions of young people are to blame for discipline problems, instead acknowledging the need to change oppressive systems, to recognize knowledge and strength within their communities, and to lift youth voice that is too often silenced.


SOURCE: Gworzdik et al. 2014.

When researchers work in collaboration with community members who bring expertise from their daily lives, questions are posed in such a way that interrupts the pattern of placing blame on communities of color. Meanwhile, people in positions of power, such as principals or superintendents, begin to see dedicated and impassioned researchers where they might have previously seen false stereotypes. Data also persuade powerful people to assume new perspectives. The good news about implicit bias is that it can be reversed in exactly these ways – by replacing stereotypes with new associations, intergroup contact, and perspective-taking. PAR not only makes research more valid and mobilizes local action around critical issues; it also interrupts the dissemination of false stereotypes that feeds implicit bias and fuels hate. 


1 See more graphics on White Americans’ attitudes toward race here.


Farmer-Hinton, R. L., J. D. Lewis, L. D. Patton, and I. D. Rivers. 2013. “Dear Mr. Kozol . . . Four African-American Women Scholars and the Re-authoring of Savage Inequalities,” Teachers College Record 115:1–38.

Gwozdzik, S., S. Halberstadt, B. Kast, and N. Noel. 2014. “The Role of Youth Participatory Action Research in Improving School Climate and Discipline.” Unpublished manuscript. Providence, RI: Urban Education Policy program, Brown University.

Marsden, Peter, ed. 2012. Social Trends in American Life: Findings from the General Social Survey since 1972. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Milner, R.H. 2007. “Race, Culture, and Researcher Positionality: Working through Dangers Seen, Unseen, and Unforeseen,” Educational Researcher 36, no. 7:388–400.

Prepared by:

830  Joanna Geller
 Senior Research Associate
 Annenberg Institute for School Reform

The author would like to acknowledge PAR scholars and practitioners Chris Buttimer, Dr. Ben Kirshner, Diana Montero, Dr. Leigh Patel, Jazmin Ramirez, Maria Robles, and Rodrigo Robles for their contributions to the research project referenced in this commentary and AISR’s Alexa LeBoeuf for her tremendous support of this project.