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Unless otherwise noted, all quotes from Marie Kennedy are taken from an interview on July 17, 1995.

The Roofless Women's Action Research Mobilization (RWARM) project at the College of Public and Community Service (CPCS) at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, explores both causes and solutions to women's homelessness via a participatory action research approach. Six formerly homeless women, now enrolled in CPCS and pursuing bachelor's degrees in community planning and advocacy, serve as the project's investigators. Professor Marie Kennedy, UMass faculty advisor to RWARM, supervises their work. Grant funds provide each with free tuition, a stipend, and reimbursement for child care and transportation. A steering committee comprised of formerly homeless women and a variety of groups concerned with homelessness, women, poverty, and domestic violence, advises the project.

Having experienced homelessness, these researchers brought special qualifications into the research process, including the design of the research instruments, and a capacity to elicit unusually forthright responses to their in-person interviews with homeless women in Massachusetts. Along the way, they are empowering themselves by gaining self-confidence and skills, as well as helping to empower the currently homeless women participating in the study.

Goals: Project, Personal, and Evaluation

Project Goals

1. Educate public and policymakers about experiences of homeless women and about effective preventive measures.
2. Change disempowering and ineffective shelter policies.
3. Highlight programs that work and recommend new ones.
4. Prioritize state spending to emphasize prevention.

Personal Goals

1. Learn how to collect and analyze data.
2. Gain interviewing, public speaking, and media- and community-organizing skills.

Evaluation Goals - Process Study

1. Involve formerly homeless women in all phases of study.
2. Complete 150 interviews with homeless women.
3. Provide relevant research and community-organizing skills for researchers.
4. Initiate community organizing.
5. Change policies and funding.
6. Document research project and share model with research, advocacy, and service organizations.

Evaluation Goals - Outcomes Study

1. Elicit women's insights into how their homelessness could have been prevented, what their situations were before their homelessness, and whether they knew their housing rights.
2. Publicize survey findings.
3. Launch campaigns to influence state and national policies and programs.

Overcoming Distrust, Improving Findings
Kennedy notes that many of the survey questions probably would not have been included if the RWARM project had not been designed in a participatory manner. The survey questions developed by the RWARM researchers reflect the experiences and insights of the researchers themselves. Kennedy also believes that the answers generated by the interviews are more forthright than those usually heard by researchers investigating a controversial, personal, or stigmatized topic. In listening to interview tapes, Kennedy says, “you can hear the women opening up, feeling that ‘Here's someone I can tell about my experience.’”

Kennedy believes that if she were doing the interviewing, there would be a tendency for those being interviewed to see her, at best, as someone incapable of understanding, and at worst, “as a spy” likely to reveal their answers to “the authorities.” Instead, RWARM's reliance upon formerly homeless women as researchers has resulted in more detailed and possibly more truthful answers to interview questions. One researcher noted that sharing the experience of having been homeless is often empowering for those being interviewed: “They feel like ‘If she can [escape homelessness], so can I.’”

Evaluation Design
The RWARM study has six process goals and three outcome goals (see box), and consists of three interrelated procedures: collective investigation, collective analysis, and collective action. After RWARM researchers complete 150 interviews of homeless women in Massachusetts, they will analyze and code all responses. A graduate student in public policy will assist in this work. A final report will be disseminated to advocacy organizations and public agencies.

Schedule Setbacks
“Initially,” Kennedy explained, “we envisioned RWARM as a one-year project, but quickly learned that that timeline was unrealistic,” given the academic and personal demands on the researchers. The RWARM researchers have few personal resources on which to rely in times of stress. In addition, they must work together to address each other's different skills and skill levels. These two factors—lack of resources for dealing with crises and differing skills—have been the major reasons for the prolonged schedule of RWARM's research.

Participation As Empowerment
Kennedy worries less about the RWARM project being behind schedule than about the project's explicit goal of empowerment for both researchers and those being researched. While the RWARM project staff distinguish between project, evaluation, and personal goals (see box), they strive toward making “policy-setting agencies more responsive to the needs of homeless women, and homeless women more politically active.” Kennedy sees research as participatory when “those most affected in the conditions being researched [are] involved in setting research parameters ... [including] data gathering and analysis” (remarks at Bentley College, April 4, 1995).

The RWARM Steering Committee, of which formerly homeless women are the majority, includes representatives from the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, the Coalition of Battered Women's Service Groups, the Community Outreach Project, the Women's Institute for Housing and Economic Development, CPCS, the Boston Emergency Shelter Commission, and the Boston Women's Commission. Representatives from the Women's Institute and from the Shelter Commission have also co-taught a course for the RWARM researchers with Professor Kennedy.

Such participation in all phases of research is, she explains, intentionally political: it “supports the efforts of individuals, groups and movements which challenge social inequality. It strives to play a liberating role in the learning process. ... It does not claim to be neutral” (Bentley College, 4/4/95). Although some might criticize this approach to research as unscientific, Kennedy would argue that the importance of the larger goals of personal and community empowerment, and policy change, overshadow any worry of bias. All work, Kennedy believes, “has implications for the distribution of power in society” (Lecture at Cornell University, September 1993). Widespread participation in planning, designing, implementing, analyzing, and disseminating research is a way of sharing power usually reserved for “the experts.”

Further Reading

Fals-Borda, O., & Rahman, M. A. (1991). Action and knowledge: Breaking the monopoly with participatory action-research. New York: Apex Press.

Park, P., Brydon-Miller, M., Hall, B., & Jackson, T. (Eds.). (1993). Voices of change: Participatory research in the United States and Canada. Ontario, Canada: The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Maguire, P. (1987). Doing participatory research: A feminist approach. Amherst, MA: The Center for International Education, UMass, Amherst.

Kennedy, M., & Mead, M. (1993). Community service education: If it's such a good idea, why don't we do more of it? In C. Ferguson & J. Kamara (Eds.), Innovative approaches to education and community service. Boston: College of Public and Community Service, UMass, Boston.

Kennedy, M., et al. (forthcoming). A hole in my soul: Experiences of homeless women. In D. Dujon & A. Withorn (Eds.), For crying out loud: Women's poverty in the United States (2nd ed.). Boston: South End Press.

Implications and Replicability
The RWARM researchers, Kennedy, and the steering committee expect that their report on the causes and solutions to women's homelessness will be available in about a year. With it, they hope to encourage state and national homeless advocacy organizations to reform shelter systems, campaign for affordable housing, and reform welfare. In addition, they would like to see other universities establish similar participatory research projects. Indeed, Kennedy sees her research as a “particularly effective” type of service learning. “By definition,” she explains, “university projects usually only operate for a short period of time. So, those that empower the community to take over when students leave are more likely to engender lasting change than those which allow only the students—and not the community—to gain ‘real world’ experience.”

Participatory action research can and does empower the people involved. Kennedy described how at first, one of the RWARM researchers essentially blamed herself for having been homeless. “She would say things like, ‘If I had only known how to balance a checkbook, I wouldn't have been homeless,’” explained Kennedy. After a few months of participating in RWARM, however, the woman appeared on television to discuss the causes of homelessness. She impressed Kennedy with her new ability to describe how personal characteristics interact with a larger social context. “She discussed affordable housing, the economy, being a high school dropout, having a small child, and surviving domestic violence,” said Kennedy. “She no longer ascribed all the blame of having been homeless to herself.” Such an outcome for all the women participating as researchers and as subjects in RWARM makes this participatory project worthwhile.

For further information, contact:

Marie Kennedy
Center for Community Planning
College of Public and Community Service
University of Massachusetts, Boston
Tel: 617-287-7262

Elaine M. Replogle, Research Assistant, HFRP

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