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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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Priscilla Little, from Harvard Family Research Project, describes the implementation of the Milwaukee Participatory Action Research project and how it improved the evaluation and advocacy skills of all its participants.

The primary goal of the Milwaukee Participatory Action Research (PAR) project is to build a knowledge base about the impact of the devolution of social policy from the federal level to state and local levels, while promoting grassroots participation in policy implementation.¹ Specifically, the PAR project engages a team of individuals representing community-based agencies, advocates, legislators, and welfare recipients and local welfare implementing agencies (in Wisconsin these are referred to as W-2 agencies, W-2 being the name for the state’s welfare-to-work program), in dialogue around issues of welfare reform in Milwaukee’s Hmong and Hispanic communities.

The PAR Project
The PAR project works in partnership with community-based agencies, two local W-2 agencies, 30 Hmong and Hispanic welfare recipients, and the Hmong African American Friendship Association. It employed a three-phase implementation model:

Phase 1. Develop and implement a participatory framework for documenting personal, family, and community histories regarding W-2. Express concerns and identify barriers to W-2 participation.

Phase 2. Carry learning to a larger community through storytelling, community forums, and roundtable dialogue for the purposes of refining, broadening, and creating new strategies for addressing concerns and barriers.

Phase 3. Develop information sharing and collaborative networks to sustain learning and the growth process.

Related Resources

Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. (2001). How Can Faith-Based Service Providers Help Families Leaving Welfare? Washington, DC: Author. This research brief explores the opportunities and challenges raised by the charitable choice provision included in welfare reform legislation.

Naples, M. I. (2001). Family Leave for Low-Income Working Women: Providing Paid Leave through Temporary Disability Insurance, The New Jersey Case. Washington, DC: Institute for Women’s Policy Research. This research brief makes the case for paid family leave for the care of newborns or ill dependant relatives, and outlines policy alternatives for financing and administering such a program.

Seven monthly sessions were held with Hmong community members; each session lasted two and a half hours. After an initial introduction and overview in session one, subsequent sessions allowed participants to build trust, explore issues, and initiate productive conversation by using techniques such as incident analysis, active listening, and participation. Program planners noted that the use of drawing exercises provided an excellent way to stimulate discussions among participants with significant cultural and language barriers.

In addition to sessions with community members, four meetings were held with agency staff and caseworkers to discuss how the project could fit into the existing W-2 programs.

A significant outcome of the PAR project was the understanding among participants of the complexity and barriers to raising the skills and employment potential of Hmong families who are current and former welfare recipients. This understanding led PAR participants to work with a local community college to develop a proposal for one of the W-2 agencies to fund a comprehensive family literacy model that will significantly increase the educational options for Hmong families that participate in W-2.

As a follow-up to the PAR project, researchers are conducting group processes with Hmong family participants to determine the economic and family well-being outcomes that they are experiencing, now that they have left welfare.

Reflections on the PAR Process
The PAR process facilitated the development of transferable skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, and group learning among the participants. Additionally, the PAR process enabled them to identify a set of four learning outcomes that could be applied to other projects utilizing a PAR approach:

  1. Learning to develop overarching themes about the underlying values/assumptions of a program.
  2. Learning the importance of political connections.
  3. Learning about program processes and outcomes.
  4. Learning to take action.

PAR implementers note that the single most important element for the success of this type of collaborative research project is the commitment to learning and improvement on the part of all participants.

Priscilla Little, Project Manager, HFRP

For more information about the PAR project, please contact: Dr. Kalyani Rai, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Center for Urban Community Development, Milwaukee, WS, 53201, 414-227-3271,

For more information about the W.K. Kellogg Scholar Practitioner Program, please contact Dr. Ronald Walters, The Academy of Leadership, University of Maryland, 11-7 Taliaferro Hall, College Park, MD, 20742, 301-405-1787.

¹ The project was conducted as part of the Scholar Practitioner Program of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation Devolution Initiative, a five-year initiative that provides support to over 30 grantees, which include researchers, policy analysts, and state and national advocacy organizations, in order to support and promote public participation in informing policy agendas and decisions around welfare and health care issues. The Scholar Practitioner Program was created to provide relevant information, education, and research at the grassroots level to inform public policies and build the capacity of minority scholars to engage in community-based research. As such, it serves as a bridge between academia and grassroots communities in five states across the U.S.

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