Knowledge and the Power to Act
For the practitioner, participation is about valuing the knowledge and the experience of people who are traditionally marginalized or otherwise disempowered, what De Sousa Santos has called ‘cognitive justice’. Whether this is in the classroom with students or with disenfranchised communities, engaging with people’s knowledge brings them more centrally into the process of learning, reflecting and problem-solving together. Rather than being conceptualized as problems that need to be fixed by an external force, they are actively engaged in creating the solution.
Such engagement is more than a superficial participation of having a group implement an exogenous solution based on external inputs; the group’s knowledge and ideas are central to the analysis and the action. As groups find they can solve problems, they begin to regain confidence in their knowledge and their capacities to act. They actively claim their knowledge, and see it as a resource. They gather and share fragmented knowledge and experiences. Collective analysis amplifies confidence and engenders the capacity to act.
Such action, driven by community based knowledge and goals, looks different than action driven by external forces. Rather than following the mainstream norms of governments and development/economic thinking, communities choose to remain at arm’s length from the wider economic system in order to preserve or restore their own cultural identity and internal economies, as has been the case with many indigenous communities across the world. Workers’ groups recognize they have sufficient knowledge and experience to run sophisticated businesses, not only serve as functionaries within them, and so break away to create worker-owner cooperatives or assume management of failing businesses from fleeing owners and shareholders. Participatory budgeting processes create spaces for actions large and small which give citizens more control and input over the use of community financial resources and the overall direction of community development.
Over time, through consistent, collective decision-making, the ability to act becomes more natural and intuitive. What begins as a leap of faith becomes a practiced, confident ability to manage and govern resources and processes which were formerly seemed beyond the group’s reach.
I find this to be a process of regeneration of collective knowing and action, which can be catalyzed, strengthened and sustained through participatory practices.
Lessons from Regenerative Agriculture
Under the tutelage of my partner and collaborator Ashlei Laing, I have become a student of regenerative farming methods. Championed by figures such as Vandana Shiva and Darren Doherty, amongst others, the basic premise of regenerative farming is that modern industrial farming methods, in particular the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, has rapidly and highly degraded the soil in many agricultural areas worldwide. As French permaculturalists Perrine and Charles Hevré-Gruyer explain, such chemical-based fertilizers feed the only plant being cultivated not the soil in which it grows. Elements in the soil are extracted as crops leave the field and are not replaced. Chemical treatments, effective on one hand for producing a desired crop yield, are actually toxic to the microbiotic life in the soil, leaving it virtually dead and unproductive without ongoing and ever-larger doses of synthetic chemical treatment.
Regenerative farming argues that such abused soils are not permanently destroyed but can be revived by using grazing animals to restore nutrients, through sub-surfacing plowing to reduce soil compaction and increase hydration, and by the infusion of activated carbon below the surface to support plant, insect and microbial life. The film Polyfaces (whose director Lisa Heenan was interviewed on the Empyrean Research blog last year) describes this method of regenerative farming in detail through a documentary case study of Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia. The film chronicles the story of how the Salatin family purchased an abused, rutted piece of farmland and, within two generations of regenerative farming, turned the property into one of the most productive and diverse family farms in the world.
Through their applied work, Shiva and Doherty also demonstrate the power of regenerative practices to restore land broken by conventional farming methods. Shiva’s organization, Navdanya, runs a biodiversity farm in the Uttarakhand state of India called Bija Vidyapeeth. Started in 2004, restorative practices on the farm have facilitated the growth of an expansive organic mango forest, raised the water table under the farm by almost a hundred feet and led to the establishment of a seed bank which contains more than 700 local varieties of rice. I had the opportunity to visit Bija Vidyapeeth with colleagues earlier this summer and will be sharing more about this visit in future writings.
Doherty, through his farm design and consulting company Regrarians, helps farmers all over the world convert and rehabilitate conventional farms away from chemical-intensive practices to restorative practices which draw deeply on resources and nutrients already available in the environment which can be released through a variety of practices like those noted earlier. Measurable and scientifically defensible, these regenerative practices are a resurgence of old fashioned farm ways, indigenous knowledge, and innovative boot-strapping which draws on 21-century knowledge of biology and soil chemistry.
These processes of regenerative farming seem to me highly analogous to how participatory practices can affect communities. Indeed, the treatment of traditional knowledge practices around farming are not simply analogous but a prime example of how local knowledge and practices have been marginalized, diminished and replaced by exogenous technical practices. The conventional agro-business framework conceptualizes farms as industrial factories, based on inputs and outputs, rather than as living, ecological systems with circular flows of resources which can be self-sustaining. The result is that short term returns undermine the long term health and sustainability of the land and communities around the farms.
Like traditional farmers, communities have been told their traditional ways of knowing and action are inferior and that others have better ideas to solve their problems and improve their futures. Over time these other solutions and knowledge paradigms have become dominant, resulting in much damage to the communities because these one-size-fits-all solutions are not viable for the long term and leave communities in worse shape than before. They lose their identities, traditional practices, local economies and become extractive zones for larger systems.
Regeneration through participation calls upon communities and groups to surface and reconnect to their deep knowledge of place, land, history, economy and social relations in order to build solutions which are rooted in context. Like soils, communities can restore the efficacy of their internal knowledge and problem solving systems through returning to practices which are more community led and community driven. Participatory practices are not a silver bullet for such transformations, but they are a catalyst. If such individuals, groups and communities follow a call to practice participation and embody it in their systems, then over time a process of regeneration can occur. As these groups strengthen their capacity to learn, analyze and act collectively, they make the most of resources—natural, social and epistemic—which are locally available, rather than being dependent on external resources, practices and knowledge.
From Co-generation to Regeneration
Participatory approaches are often described as processes of co-generative knowledge production. As I noted in the previous part of this article which focused on embodiment, the participatory practitioner is a catalyst and conduit but not the problem solver, per se. In the sense that the practitioner helps to facilitate a convergence of knowledge and an analysis of collective experience, that practitioner is co-generating a deeper understanding alongside the group. However, the change must go beyond a one-off process. Lasting transformation is about restoring the group’s ability to access, trust and act on their own knowledge and experiences, rather than continually seeking outside assistance. As regeneratively managed farms become less and less dependent on external inputs to maintain fertility and productivity, the community or group with regenerated knowledge systems becomes more empowered to collaborate, deliberate and act, guided by the epistemic/cognitive resources inherent in that collection of individuals.
Such a change is not black and white, with participation resulting in closed communities and closed thinking. Rather the shift is to a recognition of the potential capacity of local systems to be much more productive and supportive if valued and actively nurtured. Soils can be equally if not more productive without synthetic fertilizers, but it requires ongoing management and the balancing of a diversity of relationships between soil, water, plants, animals, insects and people rather than the simple application of an external chemical solution.
Participation as a way of being and working likewise puts relationships, collaboration and interaction back at the center of processes of knowing and acting. Such practices restore the health of local systems, strengthening them and enabling them to be more effective in supporting the vitality of the community. As Kentucky poet and farmer Wendell Berry has written succinctly, “What we need is here.”
Participation, as an approach and method for gathering and creating transformative knowledge and for shaping collective action, is a practicable way to rediscover the deep bounty of here and the now.