Initial Lessons Learned Implementing a Domestic Violence Research Collaborative Using a Participatory-Action Research Approach
Rachel Siegal, UNC Charlotte
This past semester, we kicked off the Mecklenburg County Domestic Violence Research Collaborative (DVRC), a coalition of domestic violence survivors, advocates, researchers, and practitioners. The DVRC was convened by Mecklenburg County Community Support Services to co-develop trauma-informed guidelines for conducting research, collecting, managing, and using sensitive domestic violence data, and collaborating with domestic violence survivors. The DVRC is funded, in part, by the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues Applied Social Issues Internship.
The DVRC was initiated in response to several local observations. First, while prevention, reduction, and intervention against domestic violence (DV) is critical, it remains largely at the periphery of local efforts to address gun and community violence. Second, while DV data can inform these efforts, these data are closely protected via survivor-focused policies and regulations, rendering them underutilized. Third, although DV survivors and practitioners advocate for trauma-informed, person-centered work, traditional data collection approaches can be disempowering, confusing, and even retraumatizing to survivors.
In response, building on recent work using community-based participatory processes to conduct DV research (e.g., Nnawulezi et al., 2019, Ragavan et al., 2018; Goodman et al., 2017) we convened the DVRC to develop survivor-informed guidelines for local and regional research and data efforts.
Across our initial meetings, two process-related themes and several actionable recommendations emerged. They are described below:
Stay attuned to power dynamics: We have addressed power differentials in numerous ways. For example, in forming the DVRC, we ensured a survivor-to-practitioner ratio that prioritized survivor participants. In our first meeting, we received member feedback requesting a greater sense of direction about the purpose of the DVRC, so we co-designed a living year-long road map of meeting objectives and activities. We agreed upon communication processes for revisiting and updating the roadmap as needed. Based on group observations, we also implemented a practice where a survivor (rather than a practitioner) retains the final word in any group discussion.
We focused on relationship-building as foundational to creating empowering, participatory spaces. We utilize an ice-breaker at every gathering, and we intentionally leave unscheduled space as the group ends for spontaneous conversations. Similarly, we’ve allotted more time than we think we need for each activity. Often in academic and service settings, we prioritize “productivity”. We’ve found that this push to accomplish quickly can hamper relationship-building and silence voices.
Empowerment through data collection
Another clear theme to emerge is how every aspect of data collection can be used to empower. For example, DV survivors strongly advocated for a more inclusive definition of DV as compared to those currently used by local, state, and national organizations. For example, survivors included child abuse and familial abuse under the DV umbrella, whereas our local organizations typically separate child abuse and intimate partner violence services. This mismatch can result in survivors feeling disempowered, misunderstood, or unseen by supporting organizations.
When we began discussing how DV data are collected and used (e.g., in practice, research, and policy settings), members discussed how data collection could be used to educate survivors. For example, survivors shared that people may not know what financial abuse means, thus, they may not disclose that it is happening to them. They strongly supported the need for examples next to DV terms, which could educate and empower survivors while obtaining better prevalence estimates.