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Sharpen insights and test assumptions about key constituencies through qualitative research

It is undeniable that research is, in many ways, already at the heart of traditional organizing. Going door-to-door, talking to community members, and listening to voices that are often left out or excluded are fundamental elements of community organizing and also all key components of solid qualitative research. And yet, these invaluable means of building local knowledge are different when structured by the goals of organizing versus with intentional research. If carried out only in the organizing context of moving people to particular forms of action, they can miss or fail to register some of the ideas and narratives circulating in communities, especially if those conflict with organizers’ objectives or are otherwise uncomfortable or unlikely to be disclosed.

Therefore, a key takeaway for building a narrative strategy for belonging is to engage with aligned external researchers to create collaborative processes for designing, carrying out, and making meaning of findings from qualitative research. The research practices utilized should afford the opportunity to grapple with the unfiltered voices of community members who have been hard for organizers to reach or engage. Value comes from bringing their views—expressed in long-form—into contact and tension with organizers’ established ideas about the community and where it is on issues of concern. Especially where organizers have worked on an issue or with a certain community for years, an intentional and open-ended approach to eliciting community members’ thoughts and stories—and digging deeply into them, to listen and understand, without a persuasion agenda—can be potentially transformative. 

“There is also a rich tradition of research methods grounded in egalitarian relationships, collaboration, and shared political projects.”

Whatever the context, rigorous research in collaboration with external partners rounds out our picture of communities and constituencies by bringing both new tools and a fresh view. Notably, this approach puts on pause longer-term goals of convincing or moving participants to action. It is meant to approximate the kinds of conversations that could happen within the community or constituency “naturally,” and therefore must be structured to facilitate comfort, openness, and candor. Only then will participants feel safe to speak in a way that reveals often latent attitudes or underlying assumptions that shape their thinking. This opens a unique window into beliefs and narratives circulating in the wider community and can surface those that may be quietly impeding long-term organizing success. 

We know that this recommendation may receive pushback, and with good reason. Pollsters, research firms, and indeed researchers affiliated with universities have too often entered communities as mere extractors—taking what they need to achieve their own professional goals, without accountability or obligations to those whom they study. But there is also a rich tradition of research methods grounded in egalitarian relationships, collaboration, and shared political projects. From our own work, we know that it is possible for external scholars and movement actors to work together in true partnership and respect for the value and complementarity of the respective knowledge and tools each brings. When achieved, the resulting relationships can be the foundations for getting to the types of insights that take our strategies for building power with the communities we serve to the next level.

We stress the value of sophisticated qualitative approaches to narrative research—including methods like focus groups, staged encounters, observation, and interviews—because these offer particularly deep understandings of constituencies, yet are often overlooked or considered unnecessary even in projects that pursue extremely expensive polling and message-testing research. But when properly understood and applied, qualitative methods “get under the hood” of quantitative data to illuminate not just what people’s opinions are, but how they arrived at them, what holds them together, and how they might be undone. And this information is at the core of not only identifying individual elements of a new narrative, but also what the narrative strategy as a whole should be aiming to achieve.11 What are the beliefs that people hold; in what kinds of stories, experiences, or assumptions are they lodged; and how can we craft alternative narratives that reroute them toward taking action consistent with the society we want to create?

Case Study
Attitudes toward government responsibility

An exemplary case of how this looks is our own work analyzing attitudes toward, and conceptions of, government and the public sphere. For the past few decades, the dominant narrative on government in the United States has been that it should be as small as possible—refraining from regulation, leaving economic dynamics to “market forces,” and staying as much as possible out of people’s lives. This narrative comes with caveats of course, since “smallness” has not included decreases to the US military presence nor its militarized policing and mass incarceration system. Still, the ideas that government is incompetent, inefficient, and wasteful, and its role in the economy and society should therefore be minimal, has become widespread and often unquestioned.

Though pushed concertedly by conservative movement actors, and built around racist dog-whistle messages about “big government” benefiting urban communities and people of color, this anti-government narrative has found a foothold in communities of color. We know this because we have heard it in research designed with partner organizations to “go deep” with the constituencies that they recognize should be “with them,” but are not. Our research finds that even though support for more public services is higher across communities of color in California than among whites, the ideas that such services are inefficient, cater to bad work ethics, and are prone to abuse and wastefulness are very much in circulation in Latinx and some Asian American communities.

These ideas are very often driven by anti-Black and anti-immigrant sentiments—even where they show up in communities of color. Across racial and partisan identities, Californians’ scores on anti-Black and anti-immigrant resentment batteries are the best predictors of whether they favor cutting government programs: more resentment, less support for public service. There may be fewer people overall among communities of color that fall in this group, but there are enough to make a difference for getting to progressive reform.

“We need to articulate a narrative that can reclaim the public good role of government.”

Even more common is a dynamic in which Latinx, Asian, and to a lesser extent Black Californians believe that corporations or the wealthy are not paying their fair share in taxes, but believe it would make no difference if we changed laws to make them pay more. Conventionally it is assumed that such ambivalence about increasing taxes on corporations and the wealthy, especially among low- to middle-income earners, is due either to their belief that they may someday be rich (i.e., the prospect of upward mobility) or their fear that companies will leave the state, taking jobs with them. But when we listened to dozens of members of communities of color in inland Southern California, these concerns were not what came up.

Far more common were beliefs that, even if tax laws were changed, (1) the moderately better-off would pay more, but not the truly rich and powerful; (2) corporations would still be provided with loopholes and opportunities for workarounds; (3) if there were not enough loopholes, corporations and the rich would simply break tax laws, and not be held accountable; and (4) even if new revenue was generated, it would never find its way to benefiting “communities or people like me.”12

These findings are quite distinct from what we are told to believe about low- and middle-income people’s hesitancy toward supporting progressive tax reforms. And they point to very different narrative strategy needs. Without deep multi-method research that was defined, designed, and carried out through collaboration across research and civic and community groups, we might have continued on the basis of the wrong needs—correcting for the wrong problems.
To conclude, the research tells us several things important for organizing work:

  1. That simple addition of more people of color at the ballot box won’t necessarily result in progressive measures passing or progressive candidates winning. We need to articulate a narrative that can reclaim the public good role of government, recognizing that securing many of our big aspirations means using our power to mobilize it. The right leadership, driven by strong civic engagement and accountability to communities, can steer it toward realizing this role. 
  2. That narratives and other strategies that address anti-Black and anti-immigrant sentiment will not only create stronger cross-group relations, but will also chip away at deep, strategically implanted prejudices that fuel resentment of efforts to address poverty and inequality. Reducing racism and xenophobia means removing a barrier to addressing inequality—and this is true with respect to both whites and people of color. 
  3. That racist tropes like the “welfare queen” or the “lazy immigrant” who takes advantage of government programs are so pervasive that they can be found in all communities—including those against which the tropes are targeted. People and organizations building power in communities of color must remain attentive and vigilant to new formulations of these and other dog whistles in their own communities.
  4. That people in chronically under-represented and underserved communities may support a reform proposal’s end result but still fail to back it if they don’t trust that government will get the goods. This is partially due to the widely held belief that government is inextricably entangled with economic elites and corporations, and beholden to their interests. Here, overcoming cynicism and motivating civic action is not about making the case for what is “right” or “fair,” but convincing constituents that there is a viable way to work together to make government get us there.

Banner photograph courtesy of The Center for Cultural Power.

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  • 11The cost of contracting with private firms or consultants to plan and facilitate qualitative research can be substantial, so commitments from foundations to fund this type of research is critical. An approach in which the research partner trains nonprofit staff to carry out interviews or focus groups can be effective and efficient.
  • 12See further Joshua Clark, Cristina Mora, and Tianna Paschel, “Will Corporations Pay Their Share? Race, Distrust, and California’s Tax-Confidence Gap,” Othering & Belonging Institute, University of California, Berkeley, May 1, 2020, https://belonging.berkeley.edu/will-corporations-pay-their-share; and Clark and Araiza, “Margins in Movement,” Part IV.