A. Background: Collaborating with a CBO “in Our Backyard “- The Fortune Society, serving individuals with Criminal Justice involvement
The International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (ICCCR) has partnered with The Fortune Society on several projects over the last half dozen years. In 2006, a Participatory Action Project (PAR) was conducted to explore communication patterns within the Fortune Academy and suggest improvements.
More recently, in 2009, the ICCCR began collaboration with Fortune on creating “Toolkits”, highlighting Fortune’s recognized effectiveness and innovation in two realms. They were funded by a Department of Justice grant, under the Second Chance Act, and with an additional partner, the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
The first Toolkit (In Our Backyard: Overcoming Community Resistance to Reentry Housing [A NIMBY Toolkit]) presented the case study of how Fortune faced fierce community opposition when planning to site the Fortune Academy (supportive housing for formerly incarcerated individuals) within in a middle-class West Harlem neighborhood and how they were able to turn the resistance into strong and lasting support.
The second Toolkit, (Employing Your Mission: Building Cultural Competence in Reentry Service Agencies Through the Hiring of Individuals who are Formerly Incarcerated and/or in Recovery), describes Fortune’s successful recruiting, hiring and development practices targeting individuals with life histories similar to those that Fortune serves. Fortune’s policies and practices benefit their clients, employees and the Agency itself through strengthening its cultural competence. When “Employing Your Mission” was launched last month in Washington, D.C., a roundtable discussion on employment strategies for formerly incarcerated individuals, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder praised the document as a national model for reentry agencies.
B. Participatory Action Research: Creating Knowledge in the Service of Social Change
Participatory Action Research (PAR) is a particular form of Action Research in which the members of the organization or community of interest participate as full partners in the research process. Yorks (2005) notes that Action Research is “an orientation to inquiry, not a specific methodology (p.380.)” However, he goes on to say that an overarching design principle is that AR projects need to be defined as “sociotechnical processes.” These processes must both create the context for developing relationships that are conducive to learning within the team and the methodological practices required for answering the research questions. The highly collaborative nature of PAR provides a unique opportunity for researchers to reflect upon and recalibrate their assumptions about many aspects of the research process: including how research questions are generated, what kinds of information and sources of knowledge are applicable to answering such questions and the range of stakeholders for a particular project.
Some of the earlier PAR literature (Friere, 1970; Fals-Borda, 1991) emphasized its utility as a tool for social justice; i.e., giving voice to those who are the least privileged in society and/or for democratizing research. Others researchers emphasize the knowledge creation component of Action Research; McNiff & Whitehead (2000) note that the purpose of action research is to produce reliable and useful knowledge that is validated through action, or “a form of practical theorizing in action (p.3).” French & Bell (1995) describe Action Research as “research on action with the goal of making that action more effective while simultaneously building a body of scientific knowledge.” (p.137). We align ourselves with the latter definitions, in which social justice is balanced with knowledge creation.
PAR projects are characterized by the recognition of multiple stakeholders for the various types of knowledge that emerge . Depending on the setting, the participants and the question being asked by the PAR, stakeholders may include practitioners, e.g., educators, community-based organizations, agencies, consultants, etc.; funders and policy makers, e.g., governmental agencies and foundations; private donors; think tanks; the relevant academic community, e.g. scholars interested in theories, models, hypotheses, descriptions that the PAR outputs speak to and the community, organization, agency, or other entity or collection of individuals who co-created the PAR.
Additionally, PAR projects tend to have multiple outputs or “products” (Fine & Torre, 2001.) This makes sense as the stakeholders are likely to value different kinds of information or knowledge and may respond to different presentation media. For example, a journal article or book chapter meets the expectations of a member of the academic community, while an executive summary; policy brief; video; photo montage or mixed media product may speak more powerfully to other stakeholder groups.
C. The Fortune Academy Participatory Action Research (PAR) Project (September, 2011)
In November, 2010, seven ICCCR associates (composed of faculty, staff and students) and a similar-sized group from the Fortune Society (consisting of clients, former clients, line staff and leadership team members) came together to launch a Participatory Research Project team (PAR). Our initial shared interest was in the culture of the Fortune Academy and how the philosophy, policies and practices impact the success of residents and “alumni.” Over time we deconstructed our “umbrella question” (“What is the culture of the Fortune Academy and how does it impact residents’ (and former residents’) ability to lead successful lives?”) into several research sub-questions, including: documenting and analyzing the espoused philosophy and policies and collecting information about the practices; the impact on individuals beyond alumni and residents (i.e., families of residents; former residents; staff); impact on the community and on other related organizations (e.g., criminal justice agencies.)
In order to define the “philosophy and policies” of the Fortune Academy we collected archival data (e.g., from Protocol Manuals; Annual Reports; Screening Forms; etc.) and interviewed Fortune’s leadership team. The data will be analyzed to extract prominent themes, as well as to notice internal consistency and gaps in policies or practices. In parallel, we are defining what “success” for residents and former residents comprises. So far, we are exploring a multi-faceted definition that acknowledges that “success” can be described as both a process and as a the completion of a series of milestones. In other words success may encompass both the concrete criteria that, if met, would signal readiness for leaving the Academy (e.g., some number of months without a conviction; completion of an individual service plan) and the more difficult –to-measure development of self-awareness, autonomy, responsibility and self-regard that allows individuals to chart a path toward self-sufficiency and integration into society.
Once the philosophy and policies, and “success” are identified, next steps will include studying, through interviews with residents, former residents and first-line staff and through observation, the practices that follow from and/or are inconsistent with the espoused culture of the Academy. In addition, we will look at the ripples that the culture of the Academy has on residents’ and alumni’s family members, the West Harlem community and on other CBOs.
The lived-experience of our Fortune Academy colleagues augments the linear logic of the social science research process (embodied by the ICCCR participants) at every meeting. Periodically, there is singular energy around an issue that bubbles up in the daily life of the Academy and is brought into our meeting. One of those issues has been around Fortune’s stated belief in “second chances”, and its philosophy of a life-long commitment to its clients. This is referred to as “once a client always a client.” Also, Fortune is touted for its “cultural competence” based on its recruitment, hiring and employee development practices; fifty percent of its staff are formerly incarcerated individuals, many of them former clients. For some of these former clients turned staff members, “once a client…” cuts both ways. That is, they may experience this philosophy as stigmatizing, and as making it difficult for them to make the full transition out of their “client” status. As we identify the elements of “successful lives” for Fortune’s former clients, this issue of “dual identity” may lead us in an important direction.
We are mindful of making our meetings participative, egalitarian and welcoming. Both Fortune and ICCCR team members have expressed their optimism, commitment and energy for working together and for the research questions we are exploring.
What outcomes are we looking for as a result of our PAR project?
One objective is to increase, through recommendation and action, the positive impact of the Fortune Academy’s policies and practices on the success of their residents, former residents and staff. This is likely to take the form of a series of recommendations (e.g., for changes to policies or practices; training; opportunities for dialogue, etc.) Also in PAR tradition, we will expand our media for communicating results and recommendations beyond traditional documentation to include, e.g., video presentations; other creative expressions such as collages or drawings, etc. (Fine, et al., 1992.)
Another objective is to provide a case study describing the Fortune Academy’s philosophy, policies and practices and their impact upon residents’ and former residents’ success that can be used as a source of best practices by advocates and funders of supportive housing as well housing agencies.
Additionally, we will look at our finding through the lens of identity and individual change, in particular when one moves from a more marginalized, “anti-social” identity (e.g., formerly incarcerated individual) to a more pro-social one (e.g., educated, employed tax-payer.) To be successful in moving through the Academy, individuals, many having spent decades in violence-prone settings, must be able to resolve conflict using non-violent means. As Lewin (1947; 1951) notes, behavior is a function of the person and the environment in which he operates. Residents may be able to adopt non-violent conflict resolution strategies in an environment which requires it; however, what allows one individual to maintain non-violent behavior when returning to a violence-prone setting while another does not? We hope to discover some clues about individual differences and the environment (e.g., different sorts of training and programming) from this project. The literature on desistance from crime (Maruna, 2001) and identity provides some conceptual context for this analysis.