Bright Idea: Communication, Flexibility, Patience Key to Agency-Researcher Partnerships

Photograph of diverse young adults talking over coffee and laptop computers.

When Marguerita Lightfoot and her colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles set about to study ways to keep runaway and homeless youth from having risky sex and using drugs, they intended to enlist youth in a randomized controlled trial. Youth at nine agencies would be randomly selected, in a process not unlike a coin toss, to take part in a program called Street Smart. Those youth would be compared to a “control group” that didn’t do the program.

But Lightfoot, who now co-directs the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies at the University of California, San Francisco, found that youth, including some that would be in the control group, “agency-hopped,” going to different agencies for different needs. The possibility of duplicated data made it necessary to change the study’s design.

Lightfoot learned what youth workers already know so well: those who work with runaway and homeless youth need to be flexible. And her experience highlights the need for youth workers and researchers to collaborate actively from the very beginning of a study.

“Research partnerships are a negotiation of two cultures – agency and academic,” says Lightfoot, whose study appeared in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology last year. “The research design should work into the typical practices of the people at the agency as much as is possible while balancing the requirements of the institutions supporting the research.”

Increasing our understanding of how to support runaway and homeless youth is a big priority for practitioners and policymakers these days. So we asked Lightfoot and Nick Taylor, who manages training and evaluation at Los Angeles nonprofit My Friend’s Place, one of the partner agencies in Lightfoot’s study, to tell us what youth workers can do to help researchers who want to involve homeless young people in their studies.

Help them understand your agency and your youth. “The gold standard for a research-agency partnership is one in which the researcher is willing to work within the culture of the service organization,” Taylor says. Youth workers, he says, can help researchers determine at the outset if the intervention they are studying could realistically work, given the day-to-day realities of the youth-serving agency and its clients. For example, he would ask of researchers, “Do they understand our philosophy that includes trauma-informed services, and to do no harm? That might mean we won’t want to have an intervention that might deny services to a client.”

Be patient. “Typically, everyone involved in community-based partnerships needs to allow for a long time together,” Lightfoot says. Building relationships between researchers and agency staff and getting to know each other’s expectations, language and culture can take six months—even before research starts. Viewing the partnership as a long-term undertaking gave Lightfoot the time to build understanding and trust, and Taylor and his colleagues the time to carefully consider Street Smart’s appropriateness for their youth.  

Be flexible. As happened with Lightfoot’s study, researchers might need to change their study design or aspects of the program they are using midway. For example, in the beginning Lightfoot and her colleagues trained agency staff and youth to run the 10-session-long Street Smart program. But high turnover of both staff and clients meant the research team had to bring in outside facilitators. Taylor said that he and his colleagues were involved in these decisions, and their participation was key in making choices that kept the research on track and preserved everyone’s hard work.

Lightfoot and Taylor agree that agencies should expect challenges along the way, and part of the process is working with the researchers to find creative ways to address them.

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