Radical Inquiry: Research Practices for Healing and Liberation

Radical Inquiry

RYSE Center in Richmond, CA, was born of out of young people of color (YPOC) organizing to shift the conditions of violence, distress, and dehumanization in which they suffer, survive, succeed, dream, and die.  We center the lived experiences of YPOC, we lead with love and sacred rage to cultivate healing and build movement, and we take risks as an essential part of transformation and justice, of liberation. We do this in a physical space that feels safe, welcoming, and affirming; that is vibrant with aesthetics created by and for YPOC, and in which members feel ownership, agency, and responsibility.  We do this through cultivating a staff team and organizational culture that is reflective of and responsive to our members, and which engages in ongoing learning, healing, and movement-building.

A third of our current staff started at RYSE as members, half of our staff are under the age 27, and over 90% are people of color. RYSE runs programs across areas of community health; education and justice; youth organizing and leadership; and media, arts, and culture. All programs serve as platforms to cultivate connection, healing, love, and resistance.

During this week’s ACEs Conference in San Francisco, RYSE is sharing our strategy of radical inquiry. In this post, we share the context in which RI emerged, as well as the possibilities and implications for employing this strategy as more just and humanizing research.

Mired in Metrics of Compliance

As a community organization and non-profit, RYSE is beholden to and bound by systems that allocate and deploy resources contingent on our ability to “comply” with too often dehumanizing interventions and assumptions about young people of color’s capacities, abilities, and needs, treating them largely, and sometimes solely, as risk, problem, or disease. Over emphasis on “metrics of compliance”, such as self-efficacy, civic engagement, readiness, changes in behavior, attitude, even resilience, perpetuate dehumanization and ignore those of survival, fortitude, and resistance – all of which are reasonable and normal responses to structural/historical subjugation, discrimination, and state-sanctioned violence directed at communities of color as part of US nation-building.

Invisible, insidious, and assumed, conventional social science research, and by extension, the policies, practices, and investments that are influenced by such research, render white middle class subjectivities as the gold-standard of achievement, preferred status, wellness, and success. We experience this even within ACEs and trauma-informed discourses, where there is continuous scrutiny on the lives and moves of those most structurally vulnerable, including YPOC, coupled with avoidance and silence of the pathologies of those structurally protected and the systems that protect them.

Every day, YPOC struggle, succeed, and exceed metrics of compliance. However, their compliance does not guarantee their safety, security, or humanity.  Oscar Grant, Tamir Rice, Jordan Edwards, Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Alex Nieto, and too, too many others were all compliant. Yet we lost them to state violence. Individual behaviors, adherence, and achievements alone cannot bring healing or transformation from injustices long experienced and navigated daily by YPOC. In the words of RYSE members,

“Realizing institutions don’t work for you, but against you is the first step of healing and saving your community.”

“Healing looks like education. If people understood their privilege and how their actions can deeply affect someone, I think that it would help a lot of people who are struggling with these issues

We must embolden outcomes of success beyond those most comfortable or convenient to track and measure, that position the humanity of young people of color as the solution, rather than the problem. To do this,  we have to shift the burden of responsibility and change from those of us most structurally vulnerable to those of us most protected and privileged.

Radical Inquiry

RYSE is working to reimagine, uplift, and uphold metrics of liberation – where resilience is the baseline, not the benchmark. Where solidarity and resistance replace or enhance self-efficacy and civic engagement. Where systems are held accountable to their allocation and delivery of love, belonging, reparations – liberation.

Towards liberation, we employ radical inquiry (RI) – radical meaning grasping and tending to the roots. For RYSE, young people of color are our roots. RI is intentional, active, and ongoing listening to RYSE members, and to those closest to them.  Radical inquiry requires and facilitates connection, proximity, and empathy  that is unfamiliar, and often resisted, in traditional social science research.  When we ask young people and adults close to them what they need and want more of, we continuously hear connection to each other, to our own and each others’ histories, struggles, dreams, and hopes, and to each other. Connection humanizes and itself can be healing. Proximity pushes us to stay responsive to YPOC’s immediate priorities and needs as they define them and to be adaptive when needs or conditions change. Empathy keeps us grounded and centered on YPOC’s experiences as they explore, define, and grapple with them. Meeting and loving them where they are and being there with and for them on their journey.

Key practices of RI:

  • RI is grounded in relationship and healing.  The process is more important than the results, and the results are collectively deemed and held.  This often requires more rigor and resources than conventional research and practice. We start and stay with the needs and priorities of YPOC in order to ask the right questions, listen, respond, promote healing interactions, analyze and proactively  and collectively take steps to address needs and change conditions. Time, investment, space and relationships form the baseline for RI, combined with rigorous data collection, documentation, and dissemination.
  • RI employs multi-modal platforms of expression and sharing of our personal and collective realities. Our media, arts, and culture programming, our youth-led base-building and power-building work are radical inquiry,  as are our youth participatory action research, our member application, our clinical intakes and member support plans, and our member survey. Each platform builds an understanding for the changing needs, priorities, and interests of YPOC.
  • RI actively challenges and disrupts the dominant, dehumanizing frameworks of social science research. When YPOC are at the center of narratives and research focused on their lives, it enables and necessitates foundational shifts in how we frame, design, implement, analyze, and act on YPOC’s priorities, needs, and interests.
  • RI is focused on transforming systems. Data gathered with RI can uplift the dynamic realities of YPOC to so we can incite change at institutional levels, not individual. RI enables and inspires transformative practices within the communities and professional fields touching YPOC’s lives.

Liberation and Place

Radical inquiry pushes all of us to listen deeply to young people of color, question how well systems, policies, and programs are meeting their needs, interests and desires, and build movement toward reimagined alternatives, toward liberation.  Towards truer health equity that challenges and changes the social and structural determinants of  dehumanization. In service to this goal, RYSE has launched a Theory of Liberation, which pushes us beyond systems and programs that place burdens of responsibility on those most structurally vulnerable. Our Theory of Liberation frames our work and place as community sanctuary, anchor, and movement builder, detailing the values and principles stewarding our relationships, decisions and movement.

Finally, embodying RI requires space for facilitating connection, proximity and empathy. Responding to what we have learned with RI practice, RYSE is building an expanded youth-driven campus, RYSE Commons, to sustain multiracial, healing-centered space for young people and the community supporting them. Safe, humanizing, connection-building spaces for imagining alternatives to the systems that limit and harm young people’s futures. Dedicated spaces for building relationships, community, and collective power, where RI can be nurtured and can lead toward the vision statement created by TOL_infographic_young people for RYSE:

We envision communities where equity is the norm, where violence is neither desired nor required, creating a strong foundation for future generations to thrive.



  1. For an excellent radical analysis and cogent proposals, please read the new book by James G. Dwyer, “Liberal Child Welfare Policy and its Destruction of Black Lives” (Routledge 2018)


  2. i have tried to understand this and am lost. could and would you please put up a more clear copy of the pyramid and associated discussion so that I can see that and try to follow what is being said here?


  3. Thank you for this! I think Radical Inquiry is just the approach we need for YPOC and indeed for all if we are to move away from paternalism and colonialism. In an age of “evidence-based practices,” and the dominance of scientism and neurocentrism, we need to resist, imagine alternatives, as you say and return to the roots of healing and liberation.


    • Thank for your comment Leah and for adding to the necessity and possibility of radical inquiry. Liberation is inevitable!


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