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Yes, a spark, but what about a brighter spark?

Brighter Spark has been working quietly over the last year with a few partners and now will be expanding its work both in the community and with other researchers. It will bridge the gap between academia and the community, by providing research support to groups working on real world issues. In this article, we outline exciting projects in our new launch.

Mar 02, 2021

 Written by Abbe Edelson, Writer at Spark

 

As a new staff member at Spark with a background in community-based research, I’m excited about the official launch of Brighter Spark Applied Research. Brighter Spark has been working quietly over the last year with a few partners and now will be expanding its work both in the community and with other researchers. It will bridge the gap between academia and the community, by providing research support to groups working on real world issues.

Allison Van, Executive Director of Spark and Lead Researcher on all Brighter Spark projects explains,

“There are lots of changes that could make a little difference in your work, and just a couple changes that could alter everything.  At Brighter Spark, we listen closely and ask a million questions to identify with partners what will generate incredible results for them. We want those who work with us not just to be happy but to be ecstatic.”   

Image of Allison Van, Executive Director at Spark

At the moment, Brighter Spark is working on three projects:

  • A three year evaluation of an innovative youth employment program to show that the program not only gets the youth jobs, but helps them build and maintain the conditions to have sustainable, long term employment.
  • Coaching a staff member at a land trust in how to analyze surveys and interviews they do so they’re not reliant on others to analyze the data they collect.
  • Working with a pilot anti-racism training program to ensure an even stronger next iteration of the project.

Van says “We are doing research to support social innovation. We know that research has a role to play in building a better world, so we get really excited when partners trust us to go on the journey with them and discover all of what working together can bring.  And it always brings something incredible for us at Spark, as well as the partners.”

Image by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

When asked for an example, she described building a survey for the youth employment program.  The questions needed to accurately measure really specific things like how resilient someone was.  So her team read a bunch of academic papers and identified questions that had been shown to accurately measure these things. 

But of course, there was a problem.  Almost all of the literature that was identified asked questions that were framed negatively like, “do you frequently long to hit people?”  You put dozens and dozens of those together and you get a survey that sounds like you think the youth are terrible.  The program was very clear that they would not give their clients a survey like that.

Photo by Walid Hamadeh on Unsplash

Van continues, “They pushed us to tweak these well-established, credible existing scales so that they were still accurately measuring, but without the negativity. They needed a survey that validated their community, so we had to figure out how to give them that, while maintaining the accuracy…We struggled, but figured it out because we had to.  And now we recognize a major issue in the existing materials that, through this work, we can help to fix.  So working with such a great partner isn’t just helping them, it’s helping us innovate research.  And ultimately, that’s what Spark is all about.”


Brighter Spark also trains students in applied research by engaging them directly on all the projects.  In addition to Van, there are currently three student members of the team, Rochelle Wijesingha who is a PhD sociologist and highly skilled quantitative researcher with a focus on issues of race and equity; Jeff Black who is pursuing a PhD in Social Work, has significant experience working in communities and doing qualitative research, and is focused on issues of substance abuse; and Gavin Zhao who is about to graduate with his Bachelor’s degree in Statistics, readily solve all our technology issues, and is deeply interested in how math applies to all sorts of issues. 

The Brighter Spark team: Gavin, Jeff, and Rochelle

“We’re a strong team because of our diversity,” says Van.  “It’s why I’m so confident that Brighter Spark can take on just about anything that a researcher or organization needs.  If it were just me, I couldn’t be nearly so sure.”