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Example 1: The Changes Project: Holyoke Community College and SABES West

The Changes Project was a three-year participatory action research effort. Funded by a grant from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, part of the U.S. Department of Education, its goal was to determine the effects on adult learners of the major changes in welfare regulations, immigration laws, and the workplace that took place in the 1990’s.


The project was participatory in two senses:

  • The 42 researchers (34 of whom were able to participate for the whole three-year span of the project) were themselves current and former learners and staffers in adult literacy, GED (high school equivalency), and ESOL (English as a Second or Other Language) programs
  • All the effort’s data was obtained from 600 learners in the programs from which the researchers came

All the researchers were learners, graduates, or staff members from one of five Western Massachusetts adult education programs.  The Center for New Americans (CNA) in Greenfield, Amherst, and Northampton and the International Language Institute (ILI) of Northampton are independent organizations that work with ESOL learners.  The Mentor Program at Holyoke Community College provides services to adult learners who are making the transition between adult education and higher education.  Read/Write/Now (RWN) Adult and Family Learning Center, sponsored by the Springfield City Library, offers adult and family literacy and GED classes.  The University of Mass. Labor/Management Workplace Education Program (LMWEP) specifically serves University employees with a range of instructional offerings that encompass basic skills, technology, communication, problem-solving, and workplace-specific areas.

Research team members ranged in age from 22 to 55, and in education from adult literacy learners to holders of advanced degrees.  Among them, they spoke six languages; came from six countries on three continents; and claimed Black, Asian, European, and Hispanic heritage.  Twenty-six were parents (ten being single parents), and ten were current or former welfare recipients.  In general, the researchers comprised a group broadly representative of the community of Western Massachusetts adult learning center participants and staff.

Each of the five sites fielded a research team that worked both independently and in conjunction with the other four.  In addition to its other members, ranging in number from 3 to 13, each team included a site research facilitator (SRF) – a program staff member who was both a member and facilitator of the site’s research team.  SRF’s regularly met together with the program coordinator, and also received consultation from a research advisory group and a methodologist.

The research question the project examined was generated by the administrators and staff of 14 western Massachusetts adult learning programs, in response both to the voiced concerns of learners and to their own observations.


As stated in the Changes Project report, research goals were to learn more about:

  • Effects of welfare reform, immigration reform, and the changing requirements of the workplace on adult learners at five adult literacy programs in Western Massachusetts
  • Ways in which adult learners respond to and accommodate immigration reform, welfare reform, and the changing requirements of the workplace as they pursue their goals through education
  • How practitioners and programs can alter educational services to be more effective, given welfare reform, immigration reform, and the changing requirements of the workplace
  • Ways in which policies can be more responsive to the needs of adult learners as they deal with these three issues

The Changes Project began with a challenge: how to mold a large and diverse group of researchers into a team that could work together creatively and effectively.  Changes Project Coordinator Alex Risley Schroeder recalls that this challenge was made even greater by the fact that the project had not been 100% participatory from the beginning.

“We had to write the proposal, and, because of time and other constraints, we did that without the direct participation of learners.  It was something we struggled with throughout the life of the project.  We had teams of learner/researchers, and said to them, ‘Okay, we’ve promised the funders certain things.  Now what can we, as a group, do to make those things reflect what’s important to all of us?’”

There were only two occasions at the beginning of the project when the whole group, all five site teams, got together: an initial orientation/training and a project kick-off.  The real work of team-building actually began when the first set of data came in.

Because of the differing nature of the five adult education programs and their learners, not all teams researched all three areas of concern.  Most of the work on immigration reform, for instance, came out of the research of teams from ESOL programs. The one workplace education program team didn’t research the effects of welfare reform, because all learners in that program were, by definition, employed; it concentrated instead on changes in the workplace.

Data Collection and Information Synthesis

For all teams, information was collected in three phases from learners in their own programs:

  • Individual interviews. Teams developed appropriate interview questions for the area they were researching, and conducted a first round of individual interviews.
  • More interviews, focus groups, and surveys. Teams conducted a second round of interviews (including some follow-ups – almost all interviews were followed up with second interviews) with revised questions, and also conducted focus groups in each program and administered surveys project-wide.
  • More interviews, more focus groups, and three separate surveys, each specifically aimed at learners with firsthand knowledge of one of the three areas of concern.

After each phase of data-gathering, teams struggled with ways to sort out and report what they had found, and with how to make sense of it. There was an enormous amount of material, most of it in the form of people’s stories about their experiences. Each team found its own ways to organize data.

Each phase ended with an Analysis Fest, a coming together of all the teams to try to integrate and analyze what they had found. The meetings were called Analysis Fests, according to Risley Schroeder, to capture both the excitement and the real joy to be found in gaining and making sense of knowledge.  It was in the Analysis Fests, she says, that the five teams really became a coherent unit.

“Not everyone knew the things that were obvious to some of the teams.  What women on welfare went through, for instance, or what it was like to not be able to speak English.  It was a very powerful learning time for all of us, and it gave everyone a chance to get to know others as teams and as individuals.  Really, to make this work, we all had to understand who we were as a large group, as teams, and as individuals.”

The group wrestled with organizing information and stories they had collected. The challenge was compounded by the fact that some researchers had difficulty reading and writing, or with English. It was made yet more difficult because the researchers, at the beginning, thought of themselves as having no expertise, and therefore no tools for the task.

The first Analysis Fest started out print-heavy. There were transcripts of all the interviews, many painstakingly translated into English from Spanish or other languages. The teams were constrained by what they thought “research” was.  In the subsequent Analysis Fests, as researchers relaxed and started to put the material from different teams together, they realized there were themes common to many of the interviews, regardless of the circumstances of the learners who had been interviewed. Those themes became both the core of the project’s ultimate findings and the key to organizing the data.

Those who had the most difficulty with print or with language were also the most creative in getting around that difficulty. They made up representative stories for each of the issues, used pictures and sound as well as – or instead of – print to show what they had found, and developed dramatic interactive role plays to demonstrate the kinds of difficulties learners faced in dealing with welfare and immigration reforms and workplace issues.

One of the most important findings of the project was that adult learners often depended on fragile networks of support of various kinds in order to be able to attend classes and learn successfully.

There were essentially four types of support necessary:

  • Practical supports. These include the kinds of supports most people would understand to be necessary for successful completion of an adult education program: food, clothing, shelter, health care, child care, and transportation. But this category also includes information – about welfare recipients’, immigrants’, and workers’ rights, about the laws that govern those areas, about how to find and enroll in programs, about how to study, about how to find other academic and employment resources.
  • Inner resources. Hopes, dreams, motivation, focus, determination, natural ability, prior knowledge, spiritual faith.
  • Personal supports. These are both emotional and practical, and come not only from family and friends, but from professionals and the community at large. They include advocacy for individuals and programs, as well as respect, encouragement, and belief in people’s ability to change their lives.
  • Institutional supports. These include not only the existence, but the responsiveness and appropriateness of programs, organizations, and institutions that provide help and services to those who need them; state and national policies that speak to the real needs of the people at whom they’re aimed; and regulations that accommodate the real needs and circumstances of those they’re meant to help.

The researchers conceived of these supports as threads in a web, all intertwined and interdependent. Cutting any one thread weakens the whole web, and makes an adult learner’s success less likely. The metaphor of the web made the concept of support easier for everyone to see and understand, and also made it clear how important it was that policy makers see that an adult learner’s success is dependent on far more than what goes on in a particular ABE or ESOL program.


Ultimately, the Changes Project accomplished a number of purposes:  

It gathered a large amount of important, first-hand data about the effects – intended and unintended – of welfare and immigration reforms and changes in the workplace on adult learners and on their chances for successful pursuit of their educational goals.

It had a profound effect on the researchers themselves. Both adult learners and staff members found that the experience of participating in the project changed the way they saw themselves and the world.  More specifically:

  • Team members increased their ability to communicate and developed job-related skills, and learners specifically increased their literacy and English language skills.
  • Team members felt more self-confident and saw themselves as more competent and more able to contribute as a result of their work in the Changes Project.
  • Many team members felt they had developed a voice, enabling them to speak up and be heard in both their private and public lives in ways that hadn’t been possible for them previously.
  • Their Changes Project experience led many researchers to become active in their communities, and to change their perspective on political action in general and on their own ability to change things in particular.
  • Some of the teachers among the team members found that their view of their jobs and of the learners they worked with had changed.  One explained “This project has given me that ability [to be a reflective teacher] because you really have to listen when you’re doing research.  It’s helped me to let go of...being in charge of how the research goes.  Learning to do that has changed me – it’s changed the way I think about how knowledge gets made.  It’s really different when you do it in a group. What you come up with is much richer.”
  • The experience of building and belonging to a community that encompassed people of different cultures, ethnicities, and backgrounds stood out as enormously positive for all participants.  Many talked about the excitement of learning about how other cultures viewed the world, and the rewards of learning to get along with people with different perspectives.
  • Team members gained valuable technical knowledge about conducting research, including  how to collect and analyze data (as well as how to engage in logical analysis in general), how to adjust research to respond to the culture of those being addressed, and how to develop the interpersonal skills needed to gain information from interviews and focus groups.

The project served as a model, not only for research, but for adult education. Many of the researchers, both teachers and learners, found that their participation had changed their views of learning.  hey realized that it could be fun, practical, and group-centered.  The skills were being learned, perhaps even more effectively than when instruction was focused on them, in the context of work that had a real-world goal.

The research identified peripheral issues that have great consequences for adult learners. The web of support described above is crucial to the success of a majority of learners; yet policy makers are ignorant of it, and often unwittingly unravel it, thereby making it more difficult for learners to succeed.

The Changes Project drafted a series of recommendations for the field, for learners, for workplaces, and for policymakers.

  • Recommendations for the field center on how to make programs more effective by accommodating learner needs, including non-academic ones; by strengthening the web of support; by increasing learner participation in the organization’s decision-making; by providing help in transition to next steps – further education, career planning, employment; and by maintaining an organizational atmosphere of mutual respect and support
  • The project recommends to learners that they take responsibility for getting all the information they need, for seeking support, and for becoming involved and active in their programs.
  • Recommendations to workplaces include their providing support for workers’ occupational and professional development (including career ladders within the workplace, as well as education and training); maintaining an atmosphere of mutual respect and inclusion; recognizing and building on workers’ strengths, particularly those of immigrants; and being sensitive to the cultural diversity of the workforce.
  • The Changes Project’s recommendations to policymakers and legislators, although they concern larger issues, are similar in some ways to those for others. They suggest mandating that welfare and immigration caseworkers develop respectful relationships with those they serve; that more effective policies be developed by soliciting the participation of those at whom those policies are aimed; that information and services be provided in whatever languages are necessary; that welfare policies be responsive to the actual needs of recipients; that education and training count toward the welfare work requirement; and that policies encourage fathers to take responsibility for their children.

Participation in the project led to some action on the part of the researchers. This was both perhaps the most promising and the most frustrating part of the effort. One of the greatest pieces of learning for researchers was that action research really does blur the distinctions among research, analysis, and action.  Each of the research teams initiated some action, not so much as a result of, but rather as an integral part of, its research and findings.

  • The Changes Project’s research lit a fire under a writing group of parenting teens who had been interviewed by the team, and who wanted to write about their situation.  Their writings were incorporated into a group-composed “Mother’s Day Letter” (entitled “What’s Going to Happen to Us”) that was sent to legislators, the media, and other adult education programs.  As a result. the local paper published a story on the effects of welfare reform on teen parents, and included interviews with several of the writers.
  • The CNA team made presentations of their recommendations to the staff and administrators of the program, and also participated in rallies and direct advocacy with legislators for immigrants’ rights at the State House.
  • The Read/Write/Now team initiated a letter-writing campaign to their local, state, and national representatives, detailing the real effects of welfare reform on adult-learner welfare recipients.  They also participated in advocacy for economic justice, and, ultimately, self-published a widely-distributed (to legislators, other programs, and the public) book telling the personal stories of many of those learners.  They hope to dispel stereotypes of welfare recipients, and to help people understand the true bind that many adult learners find themselves in.
  • The ILI team’s action was centered closer to home.  Struck by the stories of those they interviewed, team members undertook to provide information and assistance to fellow learners in the program.  As did the others, they also engaged in advocacy for immigrants’ rights by attending State House rallies and other events, and by making presentations about their work.

Finally, the UMass Workplace Education team responded to what they learned in two ways:

  • Team members created a support and problem-solving group, called Making Work Work, in order to explore and affect workplace issues.This group has met with a group from the University’s Training and Development Unit to design new programs and involve more staff in planning.
  • The second important action to grow out of LMWEP’s research is the development of a career ladder for University workers, a result of meetings between the union and University administration initiated as a result of the Changes Project.

While all of this action has helped those involved feel that they now have more of a voice in their own destinies, it is frustrating as well. Except for the LMWEP progress in the workplace, most of the actions taken had little or no effect on the situations they addressed.  Welfare and immigration reform have gone through as originally planned, with virtually no concessions to the needs of people who are being deprived of the education and training that could help them to become financially successful and better citizens.  Legislators and others have listened sympathetically, but the results have shown little sympathy to the poor and/or newly arrived.

All this can be taken as an excuse to stop trying to bring about social change, but it can also be seen as the beginning of something. A number of people who previously thought of themselves as powerless have seen that they can at least struggle for what they believe in or what they need. They have learned, and have passed on, ways of finding and examining information that give them more choices. And they seem to be willing to continue to practice what they’ve learned. It is in circumstances like those created by the Changes Project that the seeds of change take root. The name seems more than fitting.

Example 2: Community implements participatory action research for proposed business deal

When an out-of-state hazardous waste recycling company approached an economically-depressed New England mill town with an offer to build a plant in the community, the town leaders were overjoyed. The plant would mean a boost to the tax base, and the company promised that both the construction contracts and most jobs at the plant – jobs they described as well-paid – would go to local residents.  Without much discussion, the town tentatively agreed to grant permits, and to waive environmental regulations where necessary.

Some citizens were worried, however. The plant was scheduled to be built on land that drained into the aquifer that fed one of the town’s two wells. Although the company claimed that its process was foolproof and waste-free – all the waste they collected was to be recycled into other products, and there would be no chance of any pollution from their operation – it still seemed ill-considered to grant permission for something so dangerous-sounding without learning more about it.

The group of concerned citizens came from diverse backgrounds. One of the leaders was a teacher; another was a single mother on welfare. The group’s membership spanned the social structure of the town. Arrayed against it were town officials, concerned with growth in a period of economic stagnation, and many of the unemployed and underemployed citizens who hoped that the plant would mean jobs for them, and a better life for their families.

The town split down the middle, with officials refusing to budge, and neighbors and long-time friends ceasing to speak. The members of the concerned group realized they had to understand as much as they could about the company and its process, and set out to do research on both. They learned about hazardous waste recycling, and about both the waste the plant would accept, and the products it intended to turn that waste into.  They sought information on the company, discovering that it had operating plants in the Midwest.

Group members called officials in the Midwestern communities where the plants were located, and learned that there had, in fact, been some environmental problems. They also found out that the plant’s proposed methods were still largely untested, and that there were many scientists who believed that there were serious flaws in them. Armed with this information, the group notified the press and called a public meeting.

After a chaotic, but ultimately productive, evening, the group convinced enough people of potential problems that elected officials were pressured into appointing a commission to study the issue of the hazardous waste recycling plant.  Several members of the concerned citizens’ group were appointed to the commission, along with several other community members who favored the plant.

Over the course of several weeks, the commission met with company officials, and continued to do research on the science of hazardous waste recycling, receiving help from chemists and nuclear physicists at the nearby state university. Many of the commission members who had initially favored the plant became suspicious of the company’s motives, and questioned its truthfulness. Finally, the commission decided to send two of its members to one of the company’s other plants.

The commission delegation found a community that felt it had been lied to. There had been some serious leakage problems associated with the plant, and the company had not responded well.  Rather than admitting the problem and trying to fix it, company officials had tried to pretend there was nothing wrong, and accused the town of being alarmist.  When they were finally forced by a regulatory agency to clean up their mess, they had difficulty doing so, and many in town felt they still hadn’t succeeded.

Furthermore, the company had promised the community good jobs for local people, but the jobs hadn’t materialized. The well-paying jobs at the plant required graduate degrees in chemistry and other sciences, and the low-paying jobs local workers were offered were often part-time, and at wages no better than those available at Wal-Mart.

The New England town commission had heard enough. They returned and convinced the town to vote against the permits the plant needed.  Before that could happen, however, the company withdrew its offer, and looked for a site elsewhere in the country. Some people in town were still angry about what they saw as a loss of jobs, but most felt they had dodged a bullet.

A citizens’ group had turned itself into a participatory action research project, and had used the results of its research to take effective action on an issue of public importance.  Many of those involved in the effort are still active in the community. Others felt their moment of “fame” came at too great a cost, and have withdrawn from public participation.  In a small town, that is one of the risks of becoming involved in action research.

Example 3: True Collaboration for a Win-win in Community-engaged Research

“When we think about the word ‘partner,’ we can think about a significant other. If I were to say, ‘what do you want out of your partnership with your significant other?,’ you may say things like, ‘you're with me from beginning to the end, you learn about what motivates me, you learn about what excites me, what I need in order to get through the day or the month or the year.’ Right? And so, I would say, from the community side, regarding partnership and community-engaged research, we want similar things. We want someone who is with us, who engages us from the very beginning of a process--so we actually feel like a partner. In that process, do we look at the problem together? How do we discuss what both of us need to get out of this? I've heard this idea of researchers walking alongside community partners. What that also means is if I, as a practitioner, as a partner, need to take survey data to my governing board, or my officials, and it needs to be presented in a certain way - maybe that is not necessarily how the research originally planned to share the information. Well, now we have a dilemma. But, as a partnership, we have to work through those solutions. Those are some of the things that we look for in a community-based research partnership, that flexibility and understanding. One of the things I noticed as I went from being a researcher to being in practice is that you lose some of the hours that you used to have to sit and wonder, to brainstorm together in team meetings and research lab meetings, and conferences, where you can consider, “you know what would be cool to think about?” What I've realized is that once you're in the job of reporting to a board and reporting to a council, you've got to have results. You've got to deliver. We are on a timeframe. And so, we need a partner who is doing that thinking for us, and with us, making the space and providing information in bites that are accessible and digestible for us. And understanding we don't have a lot of time to pore over data and records. But we do want useful, timely information. So, when it comes to partnerships, I like to think of it in terms of a marriage where you're trying to really meet each other's needs, mutually.”