East St. Louis research project

February 24, 2015

When faculty from the University of Illinois first came to East St. Louis in 1987, residents had a simple message for them: Go back home. They had seen faculty before; they had been studied and analyzed and reported on in academic literature. They had seen their forgotten city turned into a national symbol of weakness and urban waste, with stories on national television of police using pay phones because they didn t have radios and of the city renting city hall because they couldn t afford to own it.

In 1990 Ken Reardon, an associate professor in urban and regional planning, became the director of the university s East St. Louis research project, and suggested one critical change. Instead of doing research on East St. Louis, as they had done for the last three years, the university would start doing research with East St. Louis. With that change, Dr. Reardon changed the nature of the project from a study in traditional research, to a national model in participatory action research.

This new approach had a ripple effect. Initially, research had focused on large-scale improvements within the city. University planners had developed enormous projects to encompass whole neighborhoods. When they began working with the community, faculty realized that residents didn t want lofty plans for changing their whole city. They wanted to take on problems one at a time, fixing East St. Louis piece by piece. Small-scale change replaced sweeping proposals.

The way the research itself was conducted also changed. Initially, the university had followed academic research models regularly used in urban planning. Once they began working with residents, they realized that no single model could be applied to East St. Louis. They picked pieces from here and there, and put together their plans as they went, modifying projects to fit the new ideas brought by residents. Reports written to fit academic specifications have had to be reworked and rewritten to be effective for community residents to use them with policy makers and funders.

The outcomes of the action research have been significant. In 1994, through regular meetings with urban planning faculty and students, the Emerson Park neighborhood association, representing the poorest neighborhood in East St. Louis, developed a five-year community development plan. In 1998, after completing the plan one year ahead of schedule, they initiated new discussions with faculty and students for a second five-year plan, which will include a $20 million project to develop 300 homes in the neighborhood. Another typical achievement came earlier in 1998 when the collaborative research team produced sufficient data on housing, transportation, and zoning to convince the St. Louis Bi-State Development Corporation to locate a new stop on their light rail system in Emerson Park a move that is expected to bring new revenue to the neighborhood and make jobs more accessible to residents.

The burgeoning relationship between the University of Illinois and various neighborhoods in East St. Louis continues to grow. A new Neighborhood Technical Assistance Center, opened in East St. Louis and staffed by the University of Illinois, augments action research with training and technical assistance in areas like computer literacy and grant writing.

Through action research that is truly collaborative, constructive, and community-focused, the University of Illinois has helped East St. Louis to build on their assets and increase their social capital as a community. Collaborative efforts and collaborative successes have re-energized neighborhoods and begun a process of transformation. When the university arrived in 1987, East St. Louis residents could think of no reason for faculty to stay. In a recent community retreat in 1998, faculty had a different problem. After asking residents to discuss future directions, and current strengths and weaknesses in the action research they were doing together, residents came up with a list of strengths, and a host of new ideas, but even after much prodding, they couldn t come up with any weaknesses.

 

From Service Matters 1998: Engaging Higher Education In the Renewal of America s Communities and American Democracy

Contact: East St. Louis Action Research Project

University of Illinois - IL, Illinois
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