FirstFollowers: Using Participatory Action Research to Make Change in Our Community

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FirstFollowers has a tradition of doing participatory action research at Champaign-Urbana Days, the premier outdoor summer event aimed primarily at the Black community. Participatory Action Research (often called PAR) aims to gather data and information, not just for publication but to bring about change. While most people at C-U Days are focusing on barbecue, the stage performers, or meeting up with family members and friends from the past, we put on our research caps and tap into the wealth of knowledge and information the people in the park embody. Most of us are not professional researchers. We are individuals who have spent time in prison or had loved ones subjected to incarceration. But we are fully aware that those who are touched by a problem are closest to the solution. However, few people bother to ask them for their opinions.

We began this tradition in 2016. We trained our peer mentors—i.e., our formerly incarcerated members—on the importance of research and how to administer a short survey. That first year we asked a simple question: “Are the needs of formerly incarcerated people being met in this community?” Of course, the overwhelming answer of the people we queried was “no.” Of the 301 county residents we surveyed, 82 percent identified as Black or African American. 81 percent of those we spoke with said they had loved ones who had been incarcerated. 86 percent agreed that formerly incarcerated people had difficulties getting jobs and more than 80 percent agreed that housing for this population was also a difficult issue. These answers were no surprise, but what did shock us was that 83 percent of the people we surveyed thought the authorities should provide housing for people returning from prison. These answers offered us fodder for campaigning, for educating the community and decision makers about a seriously neglected population: those who have spent time under the control of the Illinois Department of Corrections or the Federal Bureau of Prisons. We wrote our research up into a report and circulated it to decision makers, faith-based communities, university personnel, and anyone else who would listen. At that point, as an organization, we were still new kids on the block. We were testing the waters to see if we could build an organization of formerly incarcerated people who could both provide support and services to those coming home and educate the population about the realities of mass incarceration as they existed in Champaign County.

Since the answer about housing was such a surprise, we decided to explore it more deeply in our next round of research in 2018. Our main question was: are the housing needs of formerly incarcerated people being met? 88 percent of those surveyed expressed the opinion that these needs were not being met. 83 percent disagreed with the city ordinance in Champaign which gave landlords the right to deny housing to people who had certain types of criminal convictions that involved violence or sexually related actions. More than three quarters supported city or county authorities providing housing to people returning from prison, with 52 percent supporting giving priority to those returning who had responsibility for children.

We also wrote this research up into a report, this time with a specific goal in mind: convincing local authorities to provide housing. After speaking to various decision makers, we had success. The Housing Authority of Champaign County, under the leadership of then-director David Northern, agreed to allocate two houses for reentry. One went to us at FirstFollowers and another to WIN Recovery, a reentry and substance use program that serves women. By 2019, our houses were up and running. Our FirstFollowers house, which we call FirstSteps, has provided transitional housing and support for ten people since that time, the majority of whom have spent more than a decade in prison. FirstSteps is proof that targeted research can yield important results.

Last year our research work took a different twist. Given the realities of COVID and the violence our community had experienced, we shifted our focus to identifying the causes and solutions to this violence. We surveyed 275 people on those two issues. While respondents cited several causes of the violence, two issues were most prominent: easy access to guns (70.2 percent of respondents), and poverty (65.5 percent). A cluster of other causes also drew many responses: breakdown of family structure (54 percent), drugs (53 percent), not enough constructive activities (52 percent), and lack of mentors or leadership (52 percent). In terms of solutions, the leading response was establishing more programs, activities, and events for youth, especially those that involved families or mentors. Another area with heavy response was building up more structures of community involvement, such as forums, or “reviving the village concept.” Efforts to address poverty, like affordable housing and better jobs, were also high on the list. A last area of focus was to increase the emphasis on healing community members through offering mental health resources, including wraparound services bringing in multiple partners.

Our research on the community violence issue pointed to two obvious conclusions. First, that the causes of violence are complicated, many of them the product of structural racism and inequality, made worse by the pandemic. Second, the solutions involve a reallocation of resources to provide more opportunities and activities for those most directly impacted by violence: Black youth and young adults.

In response to the research on community violence, FirstFollowers came up with a set of recommendation for future action on this issue:

  1. Authorities at all levels should invest in programs and activities directed at youth, especially Black youth.
  2. Young people impacted by violence need to play an active role in designing solutions to violence.
  3. People and organizations need to come together to pool their resources and avoid working in isolated silos.
  4. We should avoid solutions that involve more policing or more resources for policing.
  5. Well-resourced entities like the University of Illinois and Carle Foundation need to allocate more resources to community issues.
  6. We need a well-funded, countywide public education campaign on racism and racial justice. Black people and Black-led organizations must lead such a campaign.

We believe our research activities have helped educate the community and bring forward the voices of marginalized populations in our county. They inspire and complement the anti-violence work that the Champaign County Board, along with the city councils of Champaign and Urbana, are funding. Taking part in these research efforts has also played a big part in deepening our own members’ understanding of how people who are impacted by the issues where we focus our work feel about those issues. Sometimes it is easy to get lost in the daily details of running an organization. Participatory Action Research has helped FirstFollowers avoid this detachment and keep in touch with the marginalized members of our community—putting us in a better position to make a difference. Ultimately, it helps us keep our boots on the ground.

James Kilgore is the Director of Advocacy and Outreach for FirstFollowers Reentry Program in Champaign as well as a writer and researcher on issues related to mass incarceration. He is the author of six books, including Understanding E-Carceration (The New Press, 2022).

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