How to Do Research That Changes the World

This blog post was originally published on May 30, 2024 for the Foundation for Child Development’s “Social Justice for Young Children Conversation Series” exploring what it means to pursue social justice for young children and their families.
ByDr. Manuel Pastor, ERI Director

When the head of the grocery store association declined to support a campaign to raise the minimum wage in California, community organizers threatened to hold a shop-in at his stores.

“Why is that a threat?” he asked.

He soon found out: the shoppers all paid in pennies, counting out each penny and jamming up the checkout lines. Very quickly he came out in favor of an increased minimum wage.

I was an assistant professor of economics at the time, and I’d been asked to participate in the campaign by contributing data and analysis. I learned that a research paper can be helpful, but community organizing is what really changes policy.

The experience launched me in a new direction as a researcher: to try to understand community organizing and to work with organizers through community-engaged research. And that changed my life. 


I grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time of great challenge to systems of domination when many of us were searching for ways to move to a more just world. Shaping my sense of injustice was the fact that my dad was an immigrant and that I grew up in a Latino working-class family in Southern California. It helped me to understand how structural inequalities by class, race, and nativity shaped our family’s life — and how stories of people beating the odds against them needed to be replaced by stories of people changing the odds for all of us.

So I was primed by the times and my experience to catch the organizing bug. In college, I helped the United Farm Workers organize urban boycotts — until they found out that I grew up fixing old cars, since that’s what my family could afford, turned me on their ragtag fleet of vehicles, and I became a mechanic for the movement. Every role is important!

When we think of organizing, we often think of protest. Certainly the world needed and still needs more of that. But being in deep relationship is also organizing: careful, patient, one-on-one relationship-building with the community to do the good we want in the world, like tackling racism and inequality. 


We academics often come in with a preconceived idea of what communities are concerned about or think is important. But when we truly listen, the brilliance that communities contain is clear. The best ideas “I’ve” had are questions that wouldn’t have occurred to me, asked by community leaders where I thought: We could answer those. We can bring statistics, GIS mapping, or qualitative analysis to bear.


The Concrete Impact of Community-Engaged Research

I now lead the Equity Research Institute at the University of Southern California, where I am a professor of sociology and American studies & ethnicity. My research focus is the economic, environmental, and social conditions facing low-income urban communities and the social movements seeking to change those realities.

Here’s the kind of impact community-engaged research can have:

  • An organization asked us how fees affected whether permanent residents would seek U.S. citizenship. When people naturalize, both their income and their civic participation goes up, so we want to incentivize it. It turns out that the choice people are making is actually between renewing their green card and naturalizing, so you need to look at the price differential between those two options. Our research showed that each time a fee increase was proposed, people rushed to naturalize, and then numbers fell after the fee went up, particularly among those least educated and least well-off. When we and advocates presented this data to U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services, the agency made it easier to waive the naturalization fee for everyone 150% below poverty level. An additional 70,000 people per year naturalized.
  • We’ve also done environmental-justice studies that helped people push for more attention to disparities. We did a proof case for creating a screening tool in California to find communities that were socially vulnerable and also overexposed to environmental toxins. It eventually transformed into CalEnviroScreen, a tool that now steers 35% of cap-and-trade resources — billions and billions of dollars — to the most distressed communities.
  • We’re the backend data shop for PolicyLink’s National Equity Atlas, a website used all over country to surface disparities. For example: The first pandemic relief package excluded families with an undocumented family member. When we lifted up information on mixed-status families in the data portal, the city of Los Angeles and the state of California responded by opening new funding sources to directly support undocumented Californians. The federal government soon changed policy to offer some forms of support to mixed-status families.

If you want to change the world, one more paper isn’t going to do it. Getting it into the hands of people who can use it will.


5 Qualities of Community-Oriented Researchers

For young researchers interested in such a path — community-engaged research in service of social justice — five qualities will serve you well:

Humility. Once I was in a meeting of organizers from across the country trying to find a common frame for their work on gentrification and houselessness. Their idea was to borrow French philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s concept The Right to the City. For us who think we’re theorists, it recalibrates your relationship.

You realize that it’s not standing above, thinking that we are helping them. It’s not standing below, thinking that we don’t have something to contribute. It’s standing beside, with an attitude of “What can I learn from the questions people ask and the brilliance they show?” 

The lesson extends beyond researchers. Philanthropy also often has stood apart from the organizations they fund, looking at the people as though they were an experiment to be observed rather than actors with whom they can partner.

People make a mistake when they deprivilege community engagement, or think of it as adding obstacles or a level of tedium. You’re going to meet some really interesting and smart people, people who have communication skills you’re going to wish your academic colleagues had.

You’ll learn how to be with people, listen to others’ concerns, find common ground, not try to be the smartest person in the room, and honor and uplift people’s contributions. Those are all great skills to be a really good leader, academic, or colleague.

Curiosity about practice vs. theory. 
At the time of that grocery-store shop-in 30 years ago, most economists theorized that raising the minimum wage would be bad for the economy. That was widely accepted as truth. But the community-based organization had noticed that when you raise the minimum wage, the working poor are the ones who see an increase, and they spend the extra money on things like food. Today, the evidence suggests that raising the minimum wage will not cause the economy to suffer but will help the working poor prosper.

I learned from this that what should be true in theory isn’t always true in practice. Listening to the community — and doing careful data-based analysis — can lead us toward what’s true in practice.

Rigor plus relevance.
That gets to my next point. In the academy, it’s often thought that if you’re proximate, you can’t be rigorous. My experience has been quite the opposite. If I make a mistake in a paper that’s published in an academic journal, I will have damaged my reputation. But if I overstate the wage gain that an immigrant will get from being documented and someone finds a hole in it and uses that to diminish the campaign, that’s hurting a whole lot of people.

The Equity Research Institute (ERI) has the impact it does because community groups use and trust our data, and state agencies trust that our data is rigorous and well-collected. This means paying attention to whether the data is representative, whether our methodologies are robust, and working to couple numbers with narrative so that the message “sticks” with policymakers and civic leaders.

We have a saying at ERI: “You may disagree with us, but we’re right.” In other words, you can argue about whether the government should intervene or to what extent, or the priority to place on these issues, but you can’t question our data and what would be gained if we addressed the disparities.

Proximity is not an excuse for sloppiness. If you’re working with a community-based organization to provide qualitative or quantitative data, retain your rigor, so that they and you can’t be questioned on the seriousness of your work.

Good habits from the start. 
Academics are trained to work alone, draw as much attention as possible to yourself, pursue highly sophisticated analyses that will get you in the top journal, and get as many accolades as you can.

These don’t build community. They don’t incentivize community-engaged research.

Grad students today, thankfully, do want more authentic engagement, more policy impact, and the sort of work that reflects their values. So, think about the bad habits of grad school and the tenure chase, and try to see what you can avoid. Of course, you have more leeway when you have tenure. But if you spent a decade and a half never going to the gym, or doing whatever exercise you’re able to do, it’s going to be pretty hard when you hit the 15-year mark — your time in grad school plus your time untenured — to then say, OK, now it’s time for me to lift weights or go for a run, or in this case, do community-engaged research.

So try to start out with good habits, informed by your community-oriented values.

Here’s one my mom taught me: “You never cross a picket line.” She meant that you act in solidarity with other people. You don’t act alone.

Here’s one my son taught me: Make a more beautiful and just world, and do it with your friends.

Commitment to a passion.
 If you do what you love — if you’re moved by a project about what Venezuelan migrants are facing right now, or the intersection of the LGBTQ and Dreamers movements, or how the spaces where people grow up have a huge impact on their trajectories and identities, or why we should document and address the huge wealth gap for households raising children under the age of 5, or what would it mean for people cast as minorities to instead act like a new majority — you’ll be really good at it. Your rigor and quality will get you into the top journals and bring you over the tenure line.

If you drag yourself through something that doesn’t animate you, your passion won’t be there, your desire to work the extra hours won’t be there, and the quality will be imposed rather than self-generated.

It’s a different journey and I don’t mean to say that just doing theory or just being in the academy isn’t important or to be valued. But if community-engaged research brings you joy, commit. You’ll get good at it and a career will follow.


Positive Momentum

I am pleased by a number of shifts over the decades in academia:

  • a fuller commitment to interdisciplinarity work, which doesn’t involve just traipsing into other people’s territories but learning from what people do.
  • an increased reliance on mixed methods, either by individuals or by teams combining qualitative and quantitative research.
  • economists (my field) more often considering questions of equity and not just efficiency, as well as more often relying on data and not just what the theory says.
  • across the board, more attention given to questions of persistent racial equity.

This comes from people increasingly saying, We need to have a broader view of human nature, we need new theories, and these need to be driven by data.

Young researchers will ride this momentum and magnify it. And in all of these areas, authentic community engagement will help.

As I said, community-engaged research is not the only kind of work academics do that should be honored. Some do science for science’s sake, or art for reasons of beauty, or work directly with community members. I had two majors in college: one, economics; the other, creative writing, and either of those is a great way to change the world.

Simply choose, and begin.


This blog post was originally published by the Foundation for Child Development’s ” Social Justice for Young Children Conversation Series” exploring what it means to pursue social justice for young children and their families. Thank you to the Foundation for allowing us to repost their content.

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