a scheme for policy research

[On a plane from Washington to Dayton OH:] I have been fantasizing lately about a plan that I won’t actually accomplish–although it would be very fun. Imagine starting with an intensive community-research project. Members of a community (for example, all the students at one urban high school) would document their lives, their aspirations, and their frustrations, with lots of assistance from students and faculty at a nearby university. This process of documentation could continue for four or five years. It would be the basis of serious, analytical discussions about justice. What do members of the community want? Are their wants valid, or have they been somehow misled, perhaps by advertising and pop culture? What does the larger community of the United States owe them? They would discuss these questions and others side-by-side with faculty and undergraduates.

Meanwhile, students at the university could conduct research to put the high school students’ situations in a broader context. How typical are their problems? How have conditions changed over time? What do related groups of people think about the students’ opinions and demands? Teachers, parents, employers, and others should be interviewed. The college-student researchers would constantly feed their results back to the high school students for further discussion.

On another track, advanced college students and professional researchers at the university would explore ideas for addressing the high school students’ needs. There could be an ongoing research seminar in which faculty and outsiders with diverse views would be invited to present policy proposals–after having digested the high school students’ documentation of their own lives and their demands for a better future.

The seminar would not only consider policies, but also politics. What constituency might line up in favor of the recommended policies? Why would people have an interest in supporting these reforms? What would it take to organize them? And what kind of political culture or political institutions would sustain this constituency? At all times, the seminar papers and discussions would be made public and fed back to the high school students.

The goal of this idea is to ground policy proposals not in an existing ideology, but rather in citizens’ informed, reflective sense of their own condition. An ideology might emerge from the process, but it would not frame or limit it.

An obvious disadvantage of focusing so intently on one place is that the situation there might be atypical. However, the whole project could be organized in an “open-source” way, so that other groups in other places could feed their self-analysis into the same discussion.

I suppose this idea is like what used to happen at Hull-House during the Progressive Era, and later at Highlander in Tennessee. (See Nick Longo’s great CIRCLE working paper entitled “Recognizing the Role of Community in Civic Education: Lessons from Hull House, Highlander Folk School, and the Neighborhood Learning Community”: pdf). But this scheme would be based at a university and intended to develop broad new political theories or ideologies.