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Blog: View from the Margin -- Founder Reflects on Starting the Centre



John Lord was a founder and first director of CCBR for more than a decade. Many of his books and other publications can be found on his web site, www.johnlord.net. Started in 1982, the Centre is now celebrating 40 years of community-based research.


This blog post is part of a blog series celebrating the Centre for Community Based Research’s 40th anniversary. Other anniversary initiatives include The 40th Anniversary Celebration Open House and Free Coaching Sessions This Fall.


As a faculty member at a major Canadian University in the 1970s, I was unhappy with the expectation that faculty should only use conventional approaches in their research. Research studies at that time were driven by each faculty member’s personal interests. The question was never asked, “what does this community want to study or change?”


As my dissatisfaction grew, I began to read widely, exploring a range of fields to see what other research possibilities existed. Soon I discovered important insights from two leading innovative thinkers. Paulo Freire was a Brazilian educator and activist who helped communities figure out what they wanted and needed. His book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, highlighted the limits of traditional social change approaches and emphasized dialogue and the importance of generating themes with people and communities. I also discovered Kurt Lewin, a German psychologist who developed field work known as action research in the 1930s. Action research for Lewin included active participation by workers in decision-making and documentation of progress. Insights from Freire and Lewin were important influences in my thinking, as was the emerging field of participatory action research.


By 1980, I had a broad view of what a community-based research Centre might look like. I invited my life partner and inclusion researcher Peggy Hutchison and human rights and disability lawyer Harvey Savage to join me in planning and implementing our emerging vision. Our aspiration was to create a Centre that was community-based, engaged with marginalized groups, and action-oriented. We saw research and education as vehicles for social change and especially systemic change in human service systems.


When the Centre started in 1982, it soon became apparent that our approach was on the margin and seen as a disruptive by many in the mainstream. This was driven home to me during our second year when I was asked to present at a graduate seminar at the University of Toronto. After my presentation, one faculty member after another criticized our approach, saying things that now sound outlandish – “you cannot trust the community,” and “researchers must be objective and treat the people they study as subjects.” Finally, I paused and said I would like to hear reflections and questions from graduate students, who showed curiosity and imagination as they explored something that was clearly new to them.


Our confidence grew as we found allies, generally groups that were also on the margin. Our first two major studies were with the Canadian Mental Health Association National Office and the fledging Canadian Independent Living Centre movement. Work with people who often experienced structural barriers and stigma taught us the importance of respect and collaboration in everything we did. In both cases, our work helped to foster change through community-based research and evaluation. Similarly, our studies documenting deinstitutionalization in Canada were part of a significant social movement that led to system change for individuals with developmental disabilities and their families.


During the first few years, we honed our research approach by developing clear values and principles, which are still in place at the Centre. It was becoming apparent that our approach to research and education was starting to have an impact. Four things stand out for me and remain foundational for community-based research – the use of the steering group to guide community projects, the utilization of consumer researchers or citizen scientists, a team approach to community research, and the idea of community researchers as facilitators.


Over the years, the Centre has had a significant impact in many areas, including mental health, deinstitutionalization, immigration, and numerous other areas of the non-profit sector. While some system change has occurred because of Centre work, system change in Canada remains stubbornly difficult to achieve. Importantly, the Centre has become a leader in teaching communities, policy makers, and universities about the value and impact of community-based research. In many ways, the Centre has moved from the margins to the mainstream.


When I spoke at the 25th Anniversary Gala of the Centre I said, “As founders, we did not realize it at the time, that we were nurturing a place of wisdom. Whether a focus group, a participatory action research study, or a community forum, Centre projects ask people to pause, to reflect, to learn, and to use these insights to change the way they live, work, and imagine the future. In some ways, we create a path for people to discover what they already know, but perhaps did not have the time or skills to uncover it for themselves.”


I am proud of the Centre’s contribution to social change and community-based research in Canada and beyond. I am also very grateful for the leadership of Joanna Ochocka and Rich Janzen, who have done an incredible job of building on the work that the founders started forty years ago.


Written by John Lord, Founder, Centre for Community Based Research

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