Telling Balanced Stories: The Participatory Action Research Approach

In her 2009 TED talk, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the power of stories. Adichie says, “How [stories] are told, who tells them, when they are told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.” This dynamic, she says, too often creates a single story about a person or a place. “The consequence of a single story is this: it robs people of dignity. It makes recognition of our equal humanity difficult,” Adichie says.

Cristosal’s Center for Research and Learning strives to break this mold by intentionally elevating diverse stories. Their Participatory Action Research (PAR) approach differs from many traditional research approaches. In PAR, researchers don’t just interview or observe the people they’re studying, they invite them to become co-researchers.

“We don’t want to scrape someone’s story out of them and leave them raw,” says Jeanne Rikkers, Director of the Center for Research and Learning. PAR allows people to tell their stories and hear what they sound like. The goal is to create a final product that those closest to the research topic can recognize and affirm. “We want people to be able to say ‘Yes, that is a faithful conveyance of what I was trying to say,’” explains Jeanne.

 
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Elevating voices that are often marginalized helps researchers reach fuller conclusions and make better recommendations. Jeanne says, “We can’t make the assumption that someone poor and unschooled knows less about their reality than an experienced researcher.” By working closely with the people involved in an issue, researchers avoid the danger of proposing solutions that don’t make sense to those actually experiencing the problem.

Participatory Action Research is also an active way to defend human rights. It’s a research process that not only yields valuable findings, but also make the population being studied a little less vulnerable. “The most valuable skill for many people is to know how to talk about their own experiences,” says Jeanne. PAR equips people with tools to tell their stories in a way that will be heard by decision-makers.

PAR is more complex than traditional research approaches. It requires significant investments of time, money, and relationship-building. It introduces difficult questions, like “How do we find ways to give voice to uncomfortable realities?” and “How can we avoid speaking for people while at the same time engaging in valid and academic research?” Despite these complexities, PAR is worth it.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie puts it this way: “Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” Jeanne is committed to hearing and honoring stories from many perspectives, even when it’s complicated. Whatever the challenges, she says, “We have to keep asking the questions.”

Hannah Rose Nelson