Examining systemic racism in 'empowerment-based' HIV prevention research: reflections of a US-France research partnership


BACKGROUND: HIV prevention research projects often apply 'empowerment' approaches to achieve scientific goals and redress power imbalances between the study team and marginalized communities, particularly communities of color. Simultaneously, there have been calls for both scientific leadership and study methods that recognize the role of systemic racism within study team and the power differentials between study leadership and the communities.
METHODS: ETOILE, Experiences of Tensions in Organizations and Interventions Leveraged for Empowerment and Prevention, is a French-American cooperative project to explore and characterize how researchers in France and the US have addressed tensions related to race/racism-related power imbalances within two empowerment-based HIV prevention projects and how these tensions influence study implementation. Each project involved has predominately white leadership and predominately Black (US) or Black African/Black French (France) staff and community representatives. ETOILE applies reflexive, comparative, qualitative process evaluation methods to identify how tensions related to race/racism-related power imbalances manifest in various aspects of the study. Originally planned as a face-to-face intervisitation between French and US teams, we have conducted with three semi-structured, web-based group interviews, where study scientific leadership, staff, and community representatives, discussed within-project power relations, representation in study leadership and the role of race/racism, privilege and voice, related to community location, education and status. Interviews were conducted via Zoom and Skype and transcribed. Analysis is ongoing.
RESULTS: Preliminary analyses have identified several overarching themes, including racialized organization of labor within each team; resistance to sharing power; need for strategies and opportunities for Black scholars in HIV prevention research; the role of country-specific history and contexts; and need for white researchers to systematically undo marginalization of black researchers.
CONCLUSIONS: Failing to reflexively consider the role of within study team-based, race/racism-related power imbalances in empowerment-based HIV prevention research may threaten the integrity and impact of the research and potentially reinforce the social conditions the research may be attempting to mitigate. Our hope is that by identifying how these tensions emerge in our own research and engaging in a structured analysis of the similarities and differences across contexts, we will identify best practices that reduce race/racism-related power imbalances and advance both in US and French HIV prevention research.