Editor’s Note: This reflection was submitted as a companion to last week’s “The Power of Inquiry,” featuring Betsy Santiago-Layne. Betsy described the power of action research on her life as a mother who had to make use of the shelter system. Here, Donna Haig Freeman describes the university-based program that involved Betsy and others in researching the problems they had experienced and the many impacts that remarkable program had.
Having stepped down from my role as Director of the Center for Social Policy eleven months ago, I have had an opportunity to step back and reflect on these past 20 years of our collective efforts to impact the root causes of poverty. Three stories of this journey point to ways of moving forward on our unfinished collective agenda.
Story 1 offers a window into how those most affected by our social policy choices can be at the center of our ways of generating and building knowledge, as well as our policy development and implementation.
In 1995, I was completing my dissertation, having been a student researcher with Homes for Families (HFF), a newly founded statewide advocacy organization directed toward the elimination of family homelessness in the state. By design, 50 percent of board members have at one time or another been homeless with their children. HFF leaders and I secured a grant from the Boston Foundation to carry out an action research project aimed at informing the state’s approach to preventing family homelessness. We needed an academic home for this research, and I was looking for a new professional home. I came to what was then UMass Boston’s McCormack Institute with this grant in hand and was welcomed in.
The research team for this action research project comprised an ethnically and racially diverse team of four women who had lived in a family shelter with their children, as well as a finance analyst, a management professor with MIS expertise, and myself. Among other contributions, the four family researchers had very astute insights as to how to gather information from other families and service providers. At one point, our research team, along with HFF’s leaders, was invited to offer our research findings and recommendations to the state’s senior leaders in the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.
You might be assuming that the four family researchers were out of the woods, economically speaking. They were not; their economic hardships were continuing and played havoc in their lives and our work together every day. However, they had solidarity with each other; through our work and their connections with HFF, they came to understand that they were not to blame for their difficult circumstances. Their choices mattered, yes, but the structural housing, employment, education and racism, sexism and other –ism barriers that they and so many others were battling could not be fixed by one individual.
Their solidarity enabled them to begin to heal from the harms of being shamed as they intersected with the service system and as they came face to face with negative judgments toward people in their circumstances so rampant in the media, public discourse, and policy prescriptions—recall the welfare reform rhetoric of that decade, which regrettably has not abated.
Similar processes of tapping the energies and insights of those with the direct experience of poverty followed this initial action research project, leading to the engagement of Julia Tripp as the Center’s lead in this work. Specifically, in the late 1990s, the Center was in a position to advise the U.S. Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Health and Human Services (HHS) and communities across the country on the implementation of homeless management information systems, using information technology to gather data from those served by shelter agencies with the goals of understanding the extent and nature of the problem, leading to the use of sound evidence to inform policy and programmatic solutions.
Julia and I were successful in convincing federal HHS and HUD administrators that consumers needed to be at the table at every stage of this work. Subsequently, Julia with others, who were just coming out of very harsh homelessness journeys, developed white papers on Consumer Involvement which were posted on HUD’s website; Julia became a technical advisor to homeless service providers locally and in other communities across the country.
With Julia as the lead, constituent in