Editor’s Note: You can hear Grace Dyrness present in person at the 2017 SATtalks, Oct. 19 & 20 in Kansas City.    

When I was living in the Philippines and working on a Master’s degree in Urban Anthropology, I decided to focus on the marginalized squatter communities surrounding Metro Manila and how women living there were coping with what to me was dire poverty.  I decided that as an anthropologist I should live in a squatter settlement in order to observe first hand their coping strategies.  Little did I know that this would be a life-changing experience for me, challenging all my presuppositions, and giving me insights into the resiliency and power of these women and communities.

Community development is slow to happen when people are not involved in making the substantive decisions that impact their lives.  My experience has shown me that the people have the capacity and the resiliency to make those decisions if the obstacles in the way are pushed back so that they can envision what a different future might be.  Tapping into their coping strategies and building from that base is a transformative way of engaging people for the good of their community. As I have continued to work in different contexts particularly in South East Asia and East Africa, I have learned that this is of universal importance.  And it stems from a very deep theological and biblical basis for me.  Philippians 4:8-9 admonishes us to look for all that which is pure, honorable, just, pleasing, commendable, and to think about these things, and to keep on doing these things.  We begin the process of development by finding where are the things that are pure, honorable, just, pleasing, commendable and then we go from there to “strengthen weak hands and make firm the feeble knees” (Isaiah 35:3).

Churches and Christian development agencies enter into impoverished communities with the intent of serving and providing resources to move people out of poverty.  But how do we know that we are really creating a sustainable future with the people we are serving?  My experience has shown me that we fall far short most of the time and end up focusing on the wrong things in the wrong way.  How can we find out if our program/project/initiative is having the desired long-term transformative effect that we so desire?  Maybe we should actually engage in some evaluative measures that are from the community itself.

This is what Participatory Action Research (PAR) will facilitate: train and engage community members to evaluate how our programs are impacting them.  Give them the skills to do the research themselves, to gather the data, and to analyze it in order to report back to us how sustainable and transformative our projects really are.  Wow! That is scary! Are we willing to take the risk and allow the people to now become subjects of their own future and not objects of the future WE desire for them?  The famous Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire (1993) states it strongly:  “Any situation in which some individuals prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence…To alienate human beings from their own decision-making is to change them into objects.”  

The benefits of PAR are exactly what we as a church want anyway!  1) It provides an “insider’s” analysis on the efficacy of a program/project.  Insiders also gain helpful insights into their own experiences.  2) There is also shared ownership as insiders and outsiders decide together what and how the research should be conducted, and then work collaboratively to collect the necessary information.  And 3) PAR provides strong and healthy results.  The information from this research is often more realistic and useful, because it involves real situations, shows variation in sites, and is then used to inform highly practical applications or strategies.

When my colleague and I at Urban Initiatives used this approach to do an assessment of the sustainability of Life in Abundance’s model of transformational development (You can see their 2016 SATtalk here Life In Abundance SATtalk)  we were grateful for the impact the participatory process had on our community researchers.  Across all six sites, the researchers reported over and over how they, themselves, have been changed by listening to the stories of the people they interviewed, and how they are excited about furthering the work. Their knowledge and understanding of what is happening in the community, combined with the research skills they have developed, positions them to now be a central part of the process going forward.  And LIA can confidently move forward with the knowledge that their model works.

This is the challenge for the Church.  Will we be willing to allow the people in the communities we serve to tell us what is true? Can we take the risk of humbly submitting ourselves to a way of measuring the transformative power of the Gospel in these communities?  I believe it is the only way to make sure that we are part of God’s redeeming plan for the wilderness and the dry land to be glad and the dessert to rejoice and blossom, and for all people to see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God (Isaiah 35).

Read more about Grace Dyrness and the other presenters here: 2017 SATtalks Presenters

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