UCI’s Research Justice Shop: Transforming Academic Research for the Greater Good

At UCI, research is an integral part of campus culture. However, research goes far beyond studying samples in the lab or poring over ancient texts. At the Research Justice Shop (RJS), co-founders and co-directors Connie McGuire and Victoria Lowerson Bredow are working with the Newkirk Center for Science & Society and the Division of Undergraduate Education to teach students how to conduct research with an emphasis on serving communities and addressing the social and environmental problems they face.

By training students in equitable and collaborative research methods and connecting them with community-based organizations, the RJS looks to establish a mutually beneficial relationship between university researchers and local communities.

Fueled by a Lifelong Passion 

The RJS is the manifestation of Connie’s and Victoria’s joint commitment to inclusivity, equity, and meaningful change—a commitment that traces back to their early lives. 

When Connie was in her early 20s, she moved to San Francisco’s Mission District and became involved with community organizing around the city. Here, she was exposed to Latin American culture for the first time, and she fell in love with the language and people. Wanting to align her activism with her newfound interest in Latin American culture, she connected with a grassroots organization called Project Gettysburg-León that gave her the opportunity to travel to León, Nicaragua and work with local communities to advance sustainable development.

While in Nicaragua, Connie built off her peer education experience from college and worked with several different groups to offer interactive theater programs on disability rights and domestic violence awareness and prevention. She explains that this is where she first got involved with popular education, an educational model that emphasizes learning through lived experiences and empowering historically excluded peoples to take control of their learning and effect social change. Connie credits her time in Nicaragua with teaching her that education can be a powerful tool for bridging the gap between communities.

Years later, when Connie was pursuing her master’s degree in Latin American studies, she took a class on community-based participatory research that solidified what her experience in Nicaragua had taught her—that there is a way to bridge the gap between academic research and community experiences to address structural problems. Armed with this new understanding that would later become the framework for her community-based research approach, Connie arrived at UCI to earn her PhD in cultural anthropology and to continue her activism and research work.

Victoria’s passion for community-based work stems from an early personal experience with the inequities of the U.S. healthcare system. She saw first-hand how many patients were unable to participate in their own care, and doctors often treated them as cases to be worked on instead of people to be worked with. Victoria was troubled by this power imbalance, and her desire to advocate for patients who could not advocate for themselves led her to examine how she could support her own community. She began working with peer health education programs that focused on HIV and sexual health, and her subsequent exposure to the inequities and stigma associated with these topics fueled her dedication to enacting change.

When Victoria attended graduate school at Columbia for her master’s in public health, she got involved with a community research group that transformed her perspective on how academic research could and should be conducted. As a part of this group, she learned practices that made community-building a foundational part of the research process. Victoria applied these techniques as she worked with organizations focused on Hurricane Katrina relief, exploring questions like “How can we build connections with the individuals and groups we want to help?” and “How do communities respond to help?”

Like Connie, Victoria took courses on community-based participatory research, where she learned about some of the historical harm that institutions of higher education had inflicted on various communities. When Victoria came to UCI to earn her PhD in planning, policy, and design, she was committed to finding a community of people dedicated to addressing structural inequalities and using academic research to serve communities in meaningful ways.

The RJS is Born

Connie and Victoria met at UCI in 2012 and established a network of partners through their work with local Orange County organizations and communities. Building off of these connections, they were invited to submit a proposal to the Newkirk Center for Science & Society to expand the center’s community engagement work. At first, they didn’t know what their proposal would grow into, but they were excited for the opportunity to take their passions and everything they had learned about community-based research and share it with UCI students.

In 2018, they established the Community-based Research Initiative, which laid the foundation for today’s RJS. Victoria explains that the RJS brings together the concepts of research justice and a science shop in an innovative way. The RJS defines research justice as “a framework that confronts structural inequities in research, transforms exclusionary research paradigms and practices, and broadens participation in research to make research processes and products more inclusive, equitable, and just.”

Connie adds that they use the concept of a science shop, a small entity that conducts independent research on behalf of everyday people, to respond to the concerns expressed by communities and to emphasize the importance of collaborative research. She elaborates, 

“We use the science shop to think about the interface between the university and the community. This model takes the idea of a shop in the sense of a workshop where experimentation happens and you’re working on things together.”

Based on these two ideas, the RJS encourages researchers to collaborate directly with communities who are impacted by social and environmental issues. Acknowledging that academic research has historically excluded community knowledge and lived experiences, the RJS supports research methods that treat university and community knowledge as equal. Connie affirms that this two-way flow of information is mutually beneficial:

“We’re interested in finding ways for the university to be a resource for the community. The community will have access to the products of research that are relevant to their social and environmental problems, and in turn, they can collaborate with the university to improve research.”

Working with UCI Students to Make a Change

Connie and Victoria break down their goals for the RJS into three parts. First, they train students in community-based research techniques. Second, they connect students with existing community research projects. And third, they study community-based research efforts, focusing on community-university partnerships and best practices for equitable research relationships.

In pursuit of these goals, the RJS offers a year-long graduate student fellowship. Fellows learn about community-based research methods and collaborate with community organizations, including Madison Park Neighborhood Association GREEN and Orange County Environmental Justice (OCEJ). Graduate fellows then use their research expertise to assist with community initiatives, such as recording community narratives amidst COVID-19, monitoring air quality in disadvantaged neighborhoods, and tracking industrial water pollution across Orange County.

The RJS also partners with UCI’s Division of Undergraduate Education to support the Civic and Community Engagement Minor, an interdisciplinary program that provides students with the knowledge, skills, and opportunities to engage as citizens and community members in the 21st century. Connie teaches Introduction to Civic and Community Engagement and Community Research in Fall, and Victoria teaches Philanthropy in the Community in Spring.

Additionally, the RJS offers a workshop series of nine modules that invites students to learn about community-based research by participating in experiential learning activities. With one workshop held every month, the series is free and open to all UCI students who are interested in learning more about conducting community-based research.

“It’s important to provide undergraduate students opportunities to get involved in research because it’s a way for them to feel a sense of belonging at UCI,” Connie explains. “When students are able to really connect with a research project, it’s great for their education in a very holistic way.” She adds that introducing undergraduate students to community-based research helps to spread awareness for the RJS and its goals and encourages students to get involved with the program.

Victoria points out that there’s value in showing students that the skills used in community-based research are transferable across a variety of disciplines and professional industries. She says, “Whether students go on to work in the government or for a non-profit or in the private sector, there are ways in which they can think about making practices more just and inclusive, and that’s where our approach can apply.”

Ultimately, Connie and Victoria see their work with the RJS and the Civic and Community Engagement Minor as highly rewarding, both on an individual and community level. Connie says, “It’s been a really amazing opportunity for us to align our personal commitments with our hopes and dreams for what research can be.” Victoria adds, “We also see this as an opportunity that has the potential for making real change. By bringing together students and community-based organizations and finding different ways to work together, there’s the potential to make a meaningful difference in the world.”

Get Involved with the RJS

Interested in becoming an RJS community partner, or want to learn more about the RJS? Then visit their website here or send an email to researchjustice@uci.edu. You can also follow the RJS on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. If you would like to support the RJS and its goals, visit their fundraising page here.

For more information on UCI’s Civic and Community Engagement Minor, click here. Finally, learn more about the RJS Workshop Series here.