An instructive example from Bangladesh in the Action Research Journal
Last year, I was invited by the editors of the Action Research Journal (ARJ) to author one in a series of short papers which offered reflection and feedback on the articles published in certain volumes of the Journal. The May 2017 edition of ARJ features this format, in which the feature articles are followed by these brief response papers.
The article I was asked to review was written by five authors from Vrije University in Amsterdam: Anastasia A Seferiadis, Sarah Cummings, Jeroen Maas, Joske GF Bunders, Marjolein BM Zweekhorst. Their article, “From Having the Will to Knowing the Way: Incremental transformation for poverty alleviation among rural women in Bangladesh” focuses on a women’s livelihood training program in northern Bangladesh. From an action research practitioner perspective, their article focuses on the iterative, adaptive design of this program over a span of more than a decade.
My response paper, available at this link, noted a few limitations with the group’s approach, namely that the team’s process was action-oriented and adaptive but not participatory. The progressive changes in the program made over years were not driven by direct feedback from the participants but rather by observations of the authors/program directors. Observational data and participatory data don’t exist in mutually exclusive universes; certainly there would have been much overlap. However I felt the program could have been more attune to the participants’ needs and could have evolved more rapidly if the authors had engaged the participants directly by providing roles/mechanisms for them to actively and consciously shape the program.
Nonetheless, I highly recommend spending some time with this paper because of the way that the authors have documented and explained the evolutionary development of their program. While I may have some disagreement about the level of participant engagement within the program, I find the narrative explanation of how and why the program was adapted very effectively articulated. As such, I find the paper a useful resource for teaching about action research.
Action research, in a world where most people’s exposure to research approaches is limited to basic positivism, doesn’t seem to them much like research. In this narrow view of research, circumscribed by the concept of the scientific method, rigor is defined by setting up a strict, clear series of steps which are followed without deviation. While this variety of research is important and valuable, it is certainly not the only way to conduct research, particularly when working with people in an effort to shift their social dynamics and quality of life. Nonetheless I find much resistance amongst students and colleagues when I suggest that they can change their action research process in mid-stream if it isn’t meeting their aims. The mantra “if it’s not working, change it” seems too good to be true. Indeed good research to them is exemplified by a lemming over a cliff mentality; even if it’s going to fail you must follow through and document the failure. From this perspective, no wonder that most people see research as rarified, in that you have to know everything and anticipate everything before you even start. Certainly there are disciplines where such failure is ok and can provide important learning; however, when dealing with people’s lives and livelihoods it’s far better, and far more ethical, to make changes as soon as the better path becomes apparent.
For this reason, I find this paper from the Vrije researchers quite instructive and informative as a teaching aid, for demonstrating the process of iterative research design in action research. I have taught iterative research design several times this past year to USIP Generation Change colleagues in Kenya. The idea of iterative design, even when explained and justified, still seems counterintuitive to most people’s native sense of how research is supposed to work. The Bangladesh paper goes a long way in helping to shift that perspective. While the paper contains several dimensions and lines of analysis, almost of half of the content is focused on adaptive design. There are 3 charts that convey the design components in different ways, by timeline, by learning cycles, by the key activities within each cycle, as well as through a highly useful graphic which combines all of these elements at once.
Moreover, in the text of the article, the authors provide extensive detail of the situations within each learning cycle that drove specific changes at each key moment. In Empyrean’s action research trainings, we walk our students through each of these different phases from the article and so that they clearly see the linkages between the key situational/programmatic/contextual issue and the change in the methodology that resulted. That the project is a relatively straightforward livelihood project also helps—one location, one group of participants over time with a finite, clearly understood goal.
Earlier in the Empyrean training module we will have explained the concept of recoverability as a key element of quality and integrity in action research. It’s initially a challenging term for students/team members to grasp, but the Vrije paper, with its well-differentiated learning cycles, graphics and timelines, provides a concrete example of how recoverability can be evidenced thoroughly and convincingly.
I commend the writers for their efforts to articulate and visualize their iterative design process so thoroughly. For those who teach action research approaches in academic or project settings, I recommend this paper as a valuable addition to your reading list and as an instructive example to deconstruct thoroughly in class.
What other examples/case studies do you use to help your students and/or co-researchers better understand the iterative design process?
The previous two blogposts reviewed the new research report Translating Complex Realities Through Technology that I co-authored with colleagues at the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation (SLF) in Cape Town.
In this post, I interview one of my co-authors on the report, Dr. Joanna Wheeler. Wheeler, now based at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), has worked in participatory research for the past twenty years. Her work started in the favelas of Brazil, looking at the linkages between democracy, violence and social change. She notes in the interview, “Violence played a key role in how social change happened, or often didn’t happen.”
After many years working at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), she relocated to Cape Town. Working in Cape Town provided an opportunity for her to engage more deeply with communities and more in a sustained manner than flying in episodically from England.
In the interview we discuss her work with various forms of participatory storytelling and film which have become central to her research practice in recent years. In her 2014 TED talk, Wheeler reflected on the importance of digital storytelling for transforming the narratives about individuals living in marginalized contexts. In this interview she discusses her subsequent expansion of this work to include collective analysis processes of digital stories and group filmmaking.
Key points from the interview include:
Joanna also raised the possibility of returning to her American roots. “After 20 years of doing this work overseas, I am feeling compelled to bring it back to the US.” We at Empyrean Research would welcome this opportunity to continue our collaboration with Joanna here in our local context, in our communities in Tennessee and across the United States.
Henry, a Rastafarian bossie doctor from Cape Town, narrates his storyboard during a digital Storytelling for Transformation workshop connected to the Translating Complex Realities research.
In the previous post, I introduced the Translating Complex Realities report, based on a research collaboration between Empyrean Research and the Sustainable Livelihood Foundation (SLF) in Cape Town, South Africa. The focus of the study was to examine how the use of technology impacts citizen participation in research and political processes.
From the beginning of the project, I and my coauthors--Joanna Wheeler, Gill Black, Andrew Hartnack and Mariam Waltz—were particularly interested in how technology could enhance the voices of citizens to make them more readily heard by government. In other words, what could these new processes teach us about government accountability?
We examined a variety of research processes carried out by SLF over the past seven years. To inform this analysis we looked retrospectively at three streams of work which SLF had already completed. These included:
· Multiple, rounds of research on the ever-evolving informal economy within the Cape Flats townships surrounding Cape Town.
· A series of research activities and actions regarding participatory monitoring and accountability (PMA) which served to give voice to communities in feeding back to the South African government on its local service provision within the townships, in particular around public safety and community policing.
· Collaborative worked carried out with the CSO Sonke Gender Justice regarding the causes and responses to gender-based violence (GBV) within the townships.
To add further specificity and breadth to the study, we also carried out two new projects expressly for this research:
· One focused on natural resources conflict, building on earlier work and relationships SLF had established with Cape Town’s community of Rastafarian bossie doktors, whose practice of natural healing relied on plants harvested from protected government natural areas.
· The other project focused on government-organized community health councils which monitor the quality of health services provided in the townships by a variety of non-governmental organizations contracted by the government to provide front-line care to citizens in these areas.
All of the cases included in the analysis were within the South African context, within Cape Town and its townships.
The cross-cutting analysis of the five cases provides significant insights into accountability in South Africa, on the ways government engages with citizens at the community level, and what is needed to make these everyday interactions a new locus of government accountability:
1. Accountability isn’t only systemic, also it’s personal. Engagement with the state is an everyday experience for citizens—with neighborhood police, with service providers, with local government officials, etc.
2. The accountability discourse frequently overlooks day-to-day forms of accountability and must take a participatory turn to account for these citizen-level experiences of the state.
3. A shift toward ‘participatory accountability’ would acknowledge the daily forms of marginalization/exclusion perpetrated by the many faces of the state.
4. Accountability is both a process as well as an outcome.
5. Accountability in South Africa is hampered by a persistent distrust of government which lingers from the apartheid era.
6. Efforts to improve government accountability most acknowledge social and historical contexts.
7. The impacts of intermediary civil society organizations on government accountability are often non-linear and borne out over time. Success depends on a variety of factors and actors.
8. Government responsiveness must happen through government engagement with people’s everyday lives.
9. Government accountability requires giving attention to developing the most marginalized peoples’ abilities to articulate their experiences and positions.
10. Everyday citizen experiences with the state can recast accountability issues, and are a necessary element to meaningful dialogue with those in political power.
11. Accountability is not a binary of citizen and state; there are multiple-overlapping forms of power which exist at the local level in which citizens operate on a daily basis.
As the report concludes:
There is not just a ‘macro’ state of institutions and elected officials. The state exists in small, everyday forms in people’s lives... This research shows how the state is perpetuated through relational dynamics and micro interactions. As such, citizens actively engage with the state in numerous ways, both informal and formal, on a daily, even hourly, basis… What is missing is a lens to notice and analyse these micro interactions as forms of citizen–state engagement and to leverage these intentionally as mechanisms for increasing accountability (27).
We hope this paper creates a dialogue about how to bring the accountability discourse to the level of marginalized citizens, to acknowledge their daily, lived experiences of the state, so that these citizens can be key actors in demanding, shaping and maintaining various forms of government accountability which enhance their security, wellbeing and livelihoods.
Empyrean Research, working in the collaboration with the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation (SLF) in South Africa and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in the UK on a project funded by Making All Voices Count (a joint initiative funded by DFID, USAID & SIDA), recently completed a study examining how the use of technology impacts citizen participation in research and political processes. The final report, Translating Complex Realities Through Technologies, was published in July by IDS.
From the beginning of the project, I and my coauthors--Joanna Wheeler, Gill Black, Andrew Hartnack and Mariam Waltz—were particularly interested in how technology could enhance the voices of citizens to make them more readily heard by government. At SLF, my colleagues had been incorporating a variety of technologies into their research processes since the organization’s founding in 2010. They were quite familiar with the perceived value-added of incorporating technology into their research; the tech dimension appealed to many policy-makers, who felt the incorporation of tech inherently qualified research as ‘cutting-edge’.
While there was identified value on the policy side of the equation, that technology frequently grabbed the attention of government officials, at least initially, what had been less analyzed, however, was how technology affected the everyday citizens who participated in the research process and whether the technology actually helped them to more effectively achieve their goals when pressing the government and other stakeholders for change. Specifically, the research asked the following questions:
In order to better understand these intersecting issues empirically, we examined a variety of research processes carried out by SLF over the past several years. We looked retrospectively at three streams of work which SLF had already implemented. These included:
To add further specificity and breadth to the study, we also carried out two new projects expressly for this research:
All of the cases included in the analysis were within the South African context, within Cape Town and its townships.
Within these five cases a variety of technologically-enabled research methods were utilized, including:
The paper provides further description of each method and how it was woven into the research methodologies of the different case studies. Annexes at the end of the document provide extensive explanation of the informal economies work, the process with the bossie doktors, as well as the research with the community health committees.
Key findings of the cross-cutting analysis related to participatory methodologies and technology include:
The inclusion of technologically-enabled research methods in participatory research processes can open new possibilities for how participatory data can be created and how it can be disseminated. However, technology is not a shortcut, nor does it change the nature of participatory work. Relationships, trust and clarity of purpose remain the cornerstones of effective participatory practice. Technology can amplify what is produced but it can cannot be a substitute for these prerequisite conditions.
Part 2 of this piece will focus on the findings of this research which relate to government accountability.
In the previous blogpost, I provided an overview of the Barefoot College and its innovative ‘Solar Mommas’ program. In this piece I return to Tilonia to shine the light more squarely on one of Barefoot’s founders, Bunker Roy, and his philosophy of development and social change.
Roy, the well-educated son of a Delhi family, moved to isolated Tilonia, Rajasthan, in 1965 after completing university in order to help his rural countrymen and women. Earlier that year he had witnessed firsthand the horrendous Bihari famine and was shaken to his core. In moving to the poor rural village of Tilonia, he hoped to do his part in helping the helpless poor of India.
His expectations of being the hero and the helper were upended quickly. He soon came to recognize the wisdom and skills that everyday villagers possessed. He became a student of the well-diggers and laborers that he worked with in the community rather than their teacher.
These experiences in Tilonia altered the direction of Roy's life and career. Tilonia became his permanent home. Inspired by the knowledge and resilience of the rural people of Rajasthan, Roy helped to create the Barefoot College in 1972. The goals of the institution were to make visible and promote the knowledge of rural communities, to serve as a center where communities could learn from each other, and to be a beacon of development that was not premised on outside experts and resources. To hear more of Roy’s story, watch his 2011 TED talk here.
The Solar Mommas have put Roy and Barefoot in the global spotlight, but the solar program at Tilonia is based upon decades of consistent work with communities in Rajathstan and across the world. Bunker has worked tirelessly and consistently with his message to trust in the knowledge and capacities of communities, that they can be their own development experts. Working from a contrarian perspective his entire career, Roy has honed a keenly critical perspective on development practice and social change. His perspective is unique, cynical yet humane and ultimately wise. His practice and advice are rooted in practicality while still maintaining a revolutionary and utopian vision.
I have had the opportunity to meet and speak with Roy on multiple occasions. My most recent engagements with him have been during courses with Northeastern University that I have co-taught over the past few years. My co-instructor Sara Minard and I bring students to Barefoot each year to experience the community-driven approach to development that is on view there at every level, from the campus design, to traditional water harvesting, to eating and sleeping the floor, ashram-style.
During our visits, Roy is always generous with his time, meeting with our students and answering their questions thoughtfully, inspiringly and with humor. Please view the video below to see the exchanges between Bunker Roy, Barefoot CEO Megan Fallone, and the 2016 cohort of Northeastern students:
I conclude this post with a variety of excerpts from the above conversation with Roy, as well as from a recent 2017 visit to Tilonia where he again answered questions from each and every student in our group. I have distilled these two conversations down to 20 points of Roy’s barefoot development wisdom:
1. “Mark Twain said, 'Never let school interfere with your education.' School is where you learn to read and write. Education is what you get from your family, your environment and the community. We insult people by saying they are uneducated. Illiterate is not uneducated.”
2. “If you are working with very, very poor people, you will be doing political work, whether you like it or not.”
3. “If everyone is for your project, there is something wrong. Someone must get hurt. Someone must object. Someone’s vested interests should be effected.”
4. “The Barefoot College is an attempt to make people recognize that communities have the power within them to solve their own problems. They don’t need anyone else.”
5. “All development comes out of conflict. There has to be an element of conflict in every change that you bring about.”
6. “There is never a final solution. With every solution that you create, you are creating a new set of problems.”
7. “100 years ago, what did communities do? They solved their own problems. They identified their own problems and came up with solutions. Barefoot College thinks that those solutions need to be revived, need to be brought into mainstream, need to show that those solutions are still applicable and relevant today.”
8. “Inspiration doesn’t last long. You have to be angry, on a sustained basis.”
9. “Illiteracy is not a barrier. An illiterate paraprofessional can provide a service to the community without going to school.”
10. “There is no [university] course in the world for compassion. Why is there no degree for tolerance, patience and generosity?”
11. “I see role models in very ordinary people who are doing such extraordinary work here in the community.”
12. “All change comes out of conflict. Conflict of ideas, approaches, methods, mindset. That’s how change comes. The trick is to persevere.”
13. “When I have university graduates here at the Barefoot College, I tell them, ‘For the first six months, do nothing. Sit and listen to what people say. Don’t form an opinion. Can you just listen to what people say?’”
14. “They’ve never been to school, yet they respect the water. They respect the sun. They respect the soil. They live within their means. They don’t waste. What more educated can you get than that?”
15. “You ask, ‘How does an organization become strong?’ You should ask, ‘How many crises have you gone through.’ If an organization hasn’t gone through a list of crises, then there’s something wrong. If you’ve done something good, something for the poor, then there will come to be resistance.”
16. “You have to take risks. You have to do something beyond your comfort zone. Otherwise you won’t bring change.”
17. “Every university in India should require every student to go and work in the village for a week.”
18. “To be a social entrepreneur you have to be misunderstood for at least ten years. It’s a very lonely path. People won’t understand you. You’re running 100mph. You’ve left the track behind.”
19. “Without giving it a shot, you will always regret something you never did.”
20. "[The Solar Mommas] arrive at Barefoot like grandmothers, and leave like tigers.”
Thank you, Bunker, for the wisdom, the inspiration and for your abiding faith in humanity.
Empyrean Research is pleased to share its latest video interview in its ongoing series of profiles of global practitioners of participatory change. Empyrean Research director Felix Bivens interviews Meagan Fallone, the CEO of Barefoot College, at the Barefoot College campus in Tilonia, Rajasthan, India.
Deep into the arid landscape of Rajasthan, India, lies one of the most radical and enduring outposts of the India’s ‘barefoot’ movement. The barefoot approach challenged the implicit narrative of international development-- that the poor are poor because of a lack of knowledge and skills-- and instead lifted up the indigenous, grounded knowledge and practices of rural communities that they had gained through hundreds of years of close observation and engagement with their environment and innovation with available resources. The barefoot approach also highlighted the capacity of rural people to learn and practice sophisticated activities even without formal education and literacy. The movement led to the emergence of barefoot health workers, barefoot researchers, barefoot architects and more. All variations emphasized the efficacy of local knowledge and while accepting that people from rural communities were open to learning new ideas and practices, especially from peers in other communities.
One of the most recognizable figures from this movement was Bunker Roy, the well-educated son of a Delhi family who moved to isolated Tilonia, Rajasthan, after university, in 1965, to help his rural countrymen and women. His expectations were upended quickly and he became a student of the well diggers and laborers that he worked with rather than their teacher. Tilonia altered the direction of Roy's life and career. Tilonia became his new home. Inspired by the barefoot movement and finding that it resonated with his experiences in Tilonia, Roy helped to create the Barefoot College in 1972. It was indeed a college in that it sought to be a place of learning and a repository of knowledge. It was also opposite of a college in that the knowledge it promoted, in that those who taught and in that those who learned were all deeply rooted in rural communities of Rajasthan. Barefoot became a defining voice in the Barefoot movement, drawing visitors from villages across India and beyond as well as gaining international prominence. As development discourse shifted sharply away from integrated community development approaches in the 1980s and toward the macroeconomic principles of structural adjustment, the barefoot movement faded in visibility. Barefoot College continued its work all the same, building a second campus in the 1980s using local techniques and practices.
Reimagining ‘Appropriate Technology’ for Development
In the late 2000s, Roy and he colleagues moved in a direction that embraced the growing availably of high tech but low cost technologies for rural communities. Roy knew that communities could master the technology, but wanted communities to maintain their autonomy. He envisioned that these technologies could bring new and additional livelihoods rather than supplanting old ones. The college had experimented with solar on its own campus and had been teaching communities to use parabolic solar cookers for years. Now solar electricity production was viable at small scale, especially given the relatively low demand of a rural household in the developing world. So Barfoot began to develop small portable, household solar units that could fit into just a few boxes that could be carried, on foot if necessary, to remote rural communities. The technology was available, but the question of how communities maintain such equipment has always been one of the concerns of the barefoot movement. The rural development landscape is littered with wells and water purification systems which are broken down permanently because the local community doesn't have parts or training for the fix.
Roy and the Barefoot team wanted to overcome this challenge though education, by providing sufficient training that the barefoot solar engineer in the community would be able to disassemble and reassemble the components down to the very circuit boards. This posed multiple challenges. How pedagogically to train semiliterate and illiterate students to be electrical engineers. At the very least such training would take months, which raised the issue of who could leave a community to even take part in a training of this length and complexity. Like so much of Barefoot’s previous work, the answers to these questions that were arrived at were simple but unexpected and transformative.
The training system that was developed was entirely visual and based on a color-coded system for the wiring of the various components. It would be delivered through a six-month residential program that would involve hours of hands-on learning by doing everyday until the design and construction of every component would be second nature to the students. In terms of who these courses would be offered to, Barefoot selected one of the most economically marginalized demographics in any community-- grandmothers. While often much younger than grandmothers in more developed country contexts, grandmothers are still most everywhere seen as non-economic actors, who are valued for childrearing abilities rather than for their potential as entrepreneurs and community leaders. Indeed it was this marginality that made them available to participate in the program. As non-income earners it was possible for them to leave their communities for the extended duration of the engineering course. While this was a pragmatic solution, it also had transformative implications for the participant and the community she came from. The grandmother would leave her community, even her country for six months of sophisticated training in electrical engineering and then return to her community as the manager and technician of the community’s only source of electricity. No longer a marginal figure, she would be educated, important and a business owner with a reliable income.
Solar Mommas Rising
If this seems like a utopian scenario with a variety weak links that seem too implausible for success, consider that the program is now been running for more than eight years, that two cohorts of fifty solar trainee grandmothers-- now affectionately referred at Barefoot as the ‘solar mommas’-- train in Tilonia at Barefoot College each year and that five replications of the program have already been created outside of India and that four more are in the works and that the program is now sustained by an Indian governmental agency grant. By working against convention, Barefoot has created an enormously successful initiative which led to an invite from TED for Bunker Roy to give a talk about the college and the solar mommas. Three million views later, the solar engineers program has global visibility and has attracted the attention of government and business leaders, including global leaders from the tech industry.
While the program is extraordinary in its own right, a significant part of its growth and recognition is due to the efforts of Barefoot International’s CEO Meagan Fallone who took over the post in 2010. She has taken a particular interest in the solar program and often travels to the remote communities that have requested to participate in the program. Likewise she has tirelessly promoted program to funders and other governments, paving its rapid adoption in 9 countries outside of India.
My teaching work with Northeastern University provided an opportunity for me to visit the Barefoot campus for the second time in the summer of 2016. As part of the visit, the students and teaching team sat down for an interview with Fallone and Roy. We also engaged with the current batch of solar mommas and observed their training process. Please see the video above for the interview with Meagan Fallone and highlights from the engagement with the solar trainees.
Fallone emphasized the importance of the solar program on a variety of levels, particularly how it impacted women and the gender dynamics in the communities where the solar systems are installed. She quoted research that estimates that the marginalization of women from economic activities reduces global economic output by 23 trillion dollars each year. The participants in the program have seen significant increases in their incomes after operationalizing their solar businesses. Indeed electrification leads to a rise in village incomes overall. Moreover the women also report changes in their social status. They are now recognized as professionals. As well, they become part of the decision-makers in the community and find themselves operating in formerly all-male circles of power. Perhaps more importantly, Fallone noted the systemic impact on women and girls that comes with light-- increased safety at night, opportunities for study and economically productive work after dark, and as a result, fewer children in the longer run, so that family resources can be concentrated on a few children rather and dispersed across many.
During our time in Tilonia, we visited night schools organized by Barefoot. Many children in the villages surrounding Tilonia work as herders during the day, from sunrise to sunset, and as such do not have time to attend school. Using the same solar package utilized by the solar mommas, Barefoot has established night schools so that these children can receive several hours of basic education each evening after they have complete their herding work. In the short time we visited the school, a dusty courtyard outside a small earthen building illuminated by two bluish LED lights, we could see the energy and joy of the young children as they learned and socialized, a complete reversal of their long lonely days of herding, a small but important shift that may change the direction of the lives of those children. One imagines similar scenes playing out across rural communities where one of Barefoot’s solar engineers has returned home to bring light and new opportunities to all parts of the community, from the youngest to the grandmothers, to fulfill their aspirations and to participate in the world more fully, and on their own terms.
Appalachian Land Ownership Study Teach-In 2017: An Invitation to Co-create the New Tennessee Land Study
In January I posted a piece about the Appalachian Land Ownership Study that was conducted in the late 1970s across five states in the central Appalachian region. I also noted that a new study was just starting in the region in order to revisit these issues to understand what has changed and not changed over the past 35 years since the first study was completed.
I am pleased to announce the first open community event related to the new land study being conducted in Tennessee. A team of activists, scholars and community members from across East Tennessee have been developing the curriculum for a one-day teach-in to familiarize participants about the past land study and to invite them to help co-create the new activities for the study which will be happening in Tennessee over the next 2-3 years.
The event will be held this coming Saturday, May 20th, at the Green McAdoo Cultural Center in Clinton, Tennessee, from 11am-4pm.
According to the organizing team, “This teach-in will be the first step in the process of gathering input from across the region, and training and empowering citizens to do the work of the study in their own communities. We will share information about past land studies and ways to do the work, and will collect feedback from Tennesseans about what they want to know about who owns their communities.”
Among the goals of the teach-in will be:
The organizers have prepared learning materials about the old and new land studies, which can previewed by visiting:
For more information please contact organizers Adam Hughes at (865) 249-7488 or Bonnie Swinford at (865) 755-0095.
To register for the event, please visit: tiny.cc/TNLandStudy.
In Memoriam: Carol Judy, Appalachian Warrior & Healer
In September 2016, I traveled to Eagan, Tennessee, to the Woodland Community Land Trust to interview Carol Judy, a pillar of learning and activism in the Clearfork Valley, who touched the lives of thousands over decades. It was a trip I had made many times, having known Carol since 2011. As we laughed our way through this interview, with the light and sounds of Appalachia pouring through the open windows, I never imagined it would be the last time I would be able to sit and have such a conversation with this great and grounded thinker. Carol became ill at the end of the year. In the caring hands of many friends from the community, Carol passed in February. This interview and blog are my tribute, one of the many that have been offered, to the life and vision of this Appalachian warrior and healer.
Knowledge can be gleaned from books and from study, but the most powerful and original knowledge emerges through experience, from action, interaction and observation. In academia and education, we rely too much on secondhand knowledge, on reading the research papers of others and on textbooks for our students. Our references are too frequently journal articles and abstract concepts, not real places, examples and projects that we ourselves have participated in or created.
Existing most days in this environment, when one encounters a source of deep wisdom borne out of experience and intimate connection with place, it is like drinking from a mountain spring that trickles cold and clear out of the rock, in contrast to processed water long stifled in a plastic bottle.
Speaking with Carol Judy was metaphorically, and often literally, a trip to that spring. There is no one way to describe Carol. The more I knew her the less I could I could offer a specific definition of her role and ways of thinking. As a young woman she had traveled the country with her husband, making their living as itinerant farm workers. That time shaped in her a great appreciation of land and nature, and left her with an open-hearted love of people regardless of their status or education.
She later settled in Appalachia, in the Clearfork Valley, an expanse of coal country bisected longways by the Kentucky-Tennessee border. She became a daily student of the mountains, of the plants, animals and ecological systems there. As her connection to the land grew, Carol became a noted root-digger and herbal healer, and was often interviewed by “incomers”—visitors to the valley—about her knowledge of plants and their various capacities for the treatment of ailments. Clearfork is and remains an active mining area and Carol’s devotion to the mountains made her an activist against the environmental destruction that came with open caste mining, better known as mountaintop removal.
She was committed to community and served variously as staff, board member and volunteer at the Clearfork Community Institute, the valley’s community development engine. Locally Carol was most beloved as mentor for young people in a community with few opportunities for them but “getting out.” For those who stayed, she helped them to see the mountains as an inheritance and a wonder rather than as a trap. She did the same for many student visitors from universities near and far who expected to take away from Appalachia a vision of environmental destruction but who often left instead with an understanding of the mountains that echoed deeply inside of them with a hopefulness that outweighed and outlasted the sights of coal tips, overburden and slurry ponds.
Carol played all of these roles in Clearfork and more. She was systems thinker and generalist who wasn’t bothered with having a title or a set profession. She served the mountains and her community and did so with great love and careful attention to place and people. Appalachian mountain forest was her compass and analytical framework for all systems and interactions, be they human or with other ecological zones like the sea: “It’s just a woods in the water. The whole world is woods to me.”
Her understanding of the mountains, their ecosystems and, indeed, even their chronosystems, was so embedded in her everyday thought and language that even the sharpest of minds would find themselves outpaced by the scale and depth of her insights, articulated with such simplicity that the thought and the impact were often disassociated, like a sonic boom where the sight of a plane doesn’t foreshadow what comes a few moments later. And so it was when the substance of Carol’s ideas caught up with the words themselves. “These mountains are just slow moving land waves,” she would often say. “If you see like the mountains, it’s just rising and falling.” She challenged people to think over longer timeframes than most had ever considered: “If you’re not thinking in 500 year cycles, you’re not thinking.”
Carol tirelessly fought for the mountains, for their own sake and for the benefits they provided to her community and the communities all along the eastern US, aware that mountains create a substantial portion of the world’s potable water. “If you don’t have good water, you don’t have a good life,” Carol told me in September. We discussed how the world needed a paradigm shift from seeing the mountains as the periphery of life to the core since so much of the air and water upon which cities depend is created there.
Given her ability to think across eons of time effortlessly, Carol’s ultimate concerns weren’t for the mountains themselves. Of her environmental work she told me, “Quite frankly it’s about saving humanity, not saving the mountains. Mountains have the time to heal themselves.” She knew the work of change would be slow and intergenerational. “We didn’t get here in one lifetime, so the fixes aren’t going to get here in one lifetime. It’s an ongoing restoration.”
Nonetheless, she held on to hope with an optimism rooted in the eternal solidity of the mountains. She cultivated the young people of the valley to go out and learn about the world and to come back to rebuild their struggling mountain communities. She charged incomers to go back and do the same in their contexts. Working together across bioregions, race and nationality, she believed large-scale change remained possible: “Our liberations have to be bound up together. We sure as hell jump-started the destruction of the earth, why can’t we jump-start its healing?”
Carol, thank you. And know that we continue your work, tirelessly and unfailingly, like the mountain waves of Appalachia.
Empyrean Research is pleased to share its latest video interview in its ongoing series of profiles of global practitioners of participatory research. Empyrean Research director Felix Bivens interviews Dr. Shaunna Scott, the Director of Appalachian Studies at the University of Kentucky. Scott is part of the organizing team for a new Appalachian land ownership study. In the interview she discusses the original land ownership study, later published as Who Owns Appalachia in 1983, and the impact of that work. She argues for why the time is right for a new study of land ownership in the region. See the blogpost below for more information about the history, impact and contemporary significance of the land study.
Land and Taxes
Who Owns Appalachia, a large scale investigation into land ownership and taxation in southern Appalachia, is a landmark publication for several reasons. It was the first widespread application in the US of what would come to be known as participatory action research (PAR), in which academics and community members from across the region worked collaboratively to gather and analyze data for the study. Moreover, the study revealed massive inequalities in land ownership and taxation in the region, vis-à-vis corporate landholding companies and local citizens.
These findings refuted the longstanding “cultural deficit” argument that Appalachia’s poverty was driven by backwardness and cultural isolationism. Instead the study illuminated the structural factors which had generated the abject inequality of the region, a place where absentee corporations owned most of the land and paid very little back to these areas by way of taxes. The study set in motion campaigns which changed laws to address these issues. Further the network created in the process of completing the study long outlasted the research itself and laid the foundation for a new generation of organizations, researchers and activists in the region.
Scope of the Original Study
A series of floods in southern Appalachia in 1977 and a flawed federal response galvanized leaders from around the region to form the Appalachian Alliance. Although Appalachia is the only region in the US with its own specific federal agency, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), the flood brought a recognition from the ARC and Appalachian Alliance members that very little empirical data was available about the region, particularly about what lands were owned by communities and could be used for resettlement after the floods and what lands were owned by private, often absentee corporations.
The Alliance presented a funding proposal to the ARC in 1978 that outlined a widespread attempt to map and analyze landownership in southern Appalachia. The ARC provided $130,000 to fund the study, which took place in 80 counties across six states: Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Alabama. The study aimed to understand not just who owned the land on the surface, but also who owned the minerals rights underneath. This was particularly significant in places such as Kentucky where laws had long held that mineral rights owners had privilege over surface rights owners and so could access, utilize and even open cast mine areas that they did not own the surface rights to, but which they held the rights to the minerals beneath.
Findings of the Study
Thought leaders in Appalachian Studies, an interdisciplinary academic field which had grown out of earlier social justice movements in the region, had advanced a position that Appalachia was actually an internal American colony, from which raw natural resources were removed, and to which little to no compensation was given. Academic and activist Helen Lewis published an influential text called Colonialism in Modern America: The Appalachian Case (1978) which attempted to address the long-standing Appalachian paradox: how could an area so rich in mineral resources be home to a population so acutely cash poor. Lewis and others argued that Appalachia was poor for many of the same reasons that colonial Africa and India were poor—externalized governance, weak institutions for civic participation, lack of investment, and the absence of a tax base to build from. The land ownership study provided an opportunity to determine to what degree these assertions could be born out empirically across multiple counties and states.
Participants in the study discovered that the lack of information about landholdings and taxation in the region was not simply a matter of oversight or poor record keeping. Much information was intentionally hidden and obscured by powerful mining interests. Land transfers between corporations were rarely made public or registered at the county courthouses, which allowed companies to pay property taxes at an earlier, lower rate. This practice also disguised who owned what land. Further, information about the quantity of minerals under the surface was not disclosed by companies, so government had little way of knowing what was leaving the ground or what the assessable value of unmined minerals actually was.
Over the course of two years, however, the researchers from the land study were able to piece together information to create a more complete understanding of land ownership patterns in the southern Appalachian region. The results, when released as a comprehensive 1800 page report in 1981, confirmed the existence of extreme inequality on the region. In many of the counties studied, absentee mining corporations owned more than half of the land in the county. Further the corporations owned up to 70% of the mineral rights beneath the land in certain counties. While this reality had been long understood by citizens in their individual communities, the study showed that the problem was endemic and systemic. Surprisingly the study revealed that 25% of land was held by absentee corporations based outside of the United States, as was later explored by John Gaventa in his book Power and Powerlessness (1982).
The study’s findings on taxation were even more startling. In a pattern that was roughly similar across counties and across states, the major mining corporations owned between 50-70% of the land but paid only 4% of property taxes in those counties. Small holders who owned approximately 30% of the land paid the other 96% of the property taxes. And while laws had been in effect since 1971 that allowed for the taxation of mineral reserves in the ground, no effort had gone into enforcement and no recorded information of actual reserve sizes for taxation purposes existed.
In their analysis the researchers noted issues of control and access. Land ownership was not a quiet, secondary issue in these areas. By virtue of their size, the corporations controlled these areas, politically and financially. Access was a further ramification of corporate ownership. Communities could not access these corporate lands for recreation or building. This forced communities into small areas, often unsuited for development, prone to frequent flooding, as demonstrated by the widespread floods of 1977. The disproportionate corporate ownership of land impeded develop, on one hand because the companies were failing to pay taxes at an equitable level and on the other because there was no available land to open for further development, to grow the population and to increase the tax base.
Short and Long Term Impacts of the Study
The land study report offered many recommendations for transforming these patterns of inequality in the region. However, government response to the study was tepid, despite the fact that the report had been funded by a governmental body, the ARC. In the years between the beginning of the study and the publication of the report, Ronald Reagan had swept to power and drastically changed the tone and direction of governance in the US. Despite having funded the study, the ARC pushed back against the report’s findings and distanced themselves from the study altogether, for what appear to have been purely political reasons.
While government action at the federal level was muted, civil society actors became galvanized around the report, particularly in Kentucky. At the time of the study, Kentucky still used a long form deed which privileged mineral rights owners over the owners of surface rights. This spurred the formation of the Kentucky Fair Tax Coalition (KFTC), which fought successfully to have this provision removed from Kentucky’s legal code. As a result of KFTC’s advocacy, the state also began more aggressive taxation of coal as it left the county where it was mined and also collected information for more accurate taxation of mineral reserves still in the ground.
Although the short term impacts of the study were less transformative than had been hoped, the significance of the study should not be measured only by what resulted in 1981 and 1982. In 2012, Dr. Shaunna Scott published a paper on the long term impacts of the study. These longitudinal impacts were significant.
After its successful campaign, the Kentucky Fair Tax Coalition did not dissolve but instead took a permanent form and adopted a new name: Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. KFTC still exists today and has worked as a progressive force in the region for decades.
Likewise, the participants in the research have remained connected and have served as a core network of social change actors in the region. Some have gone on to lead important civil society organizations in region such as the Highlander Center, while others have become academics who now run university departments which study and support development in the region, while still others have roles in state government. Further, Appalachia became a bellwether for participatory action research (PAR) in the United States, with land ownership study researchers Helen Lewis and John Gaventa playing an active role in the mainstreaming of PAR in the US. As such, Scott argued that the study has continued to impact the region over the long haul and not just in the short term.
A Land Ownership Study 2.0?
In the decades since the original study, the idea has periodically been raised as to whether another land ownership study as wide in scope as Who Own Appalachia should be repeated to assess how the situation in the region has evolved in the past three decades. Shaunna Scott and others at the University of Kentucky are making a major push to launch a new study in 2017. In September 2016, they organized a meeting to assess the interest in such an undertaking and to discuss how it could be organized. Participation in the meeting exceeded expectations and a larger hall was required to accommodate the 60+ participants. Turnout included academics and civil society leaders from across the region.
On the day before the meeting, I sat down with Shaunna Scott to learn more about why she and her colleagues believe now is the time for a follow-up study. Scott noted a variety of reasons, including advances in technology; GPS, drones and digital recordkeeping are tools which will facilitate rapid gathering and sharing data for the study. This will allow participants to learn iteratively about their own areas and to make ongoing comparisons with data from other counties and states. The ability to meet virtually will also accelerate the group’s ability to learn, analyze and disseminate new findings.
Scott noted as well that Appalachia is in the midst of a major economic realignment. There is consensus on all sides that the coal industry is ending, but what comes next is unclear. Scott and others at the meeting in September felt that a new study could play an important role in helping communities to understand how they can recreate their economies for a modern, post-coal era. As Scott articulated in her interview: “We need to put information into the hands of citizens, community organizations and local governments to make wise decisions about their futures."
Resonance with the Current Political Moment in America
The findings of Who Owns Appalachia and the importance of collaborative, community-driven research are even more significant today than in September 2016 because of the current moment in American politics. The country has just inaugurated an essentially corporate-led government, with business ties which are vast, shadowy and pose clear conflicts of interest. The popular logic that brought such a political outcome was a belief in unfettered business to bring about the best economic outcomes for the most people.
Who Owns Appalachia demonstrates that the opposite outcome is far more likely under such circumstances. Corporate hegemony that overrides government and civil society does not produce widely distributed wealth but instead acute inequality which drives poverty rather than contributing to general affluence. In Appalachia, corporations have long owned the majority of the resources and have extracted the vast majority of the wealth through mining efforts there. People and communities have not benefited from this power asymmetry but have been stifled and pushed down. As the land study verified repeatedly, in such situations, corporations easily find ways to avoid taxes and thus only extract from these communities rather than providing a balanced give and take. A new land study will help to make clear how much change has happened in the past thirty years and also help communities to reflect on where they go next, as mining becomes a thing of the past.
The current political context in the US also reinforces the need for communities and citizens to know how to analyze and assess their own situations through the collection and collaborative analysis of their own data. Knowledge and information are becoming rapidly politicized in the age of ‘post-truth’ politics. People must be able to generate and build their own empirical knowledge of their situations rather than trusting in information which may have been shaped by external agendas.
Participatory action research is a process which grounds people in the reality of their communities and combats efforts of intentional misinformation. People working together to understand and to transform their own communities from the grassroots is a powerful antidote for the messages of fear, confusion and helplessness which permeate both the news media and social media channels at this point in time.
Much inspiration can be drawn from the first Appalachian land study, and much hope and energy is gathering around the prospect of another such regional collaboration.
For more information or to become involved in the new land ownership study, visit www.appalachianlandstudy.com
Many thanks to Michelle Mockbee for her invaluable research assistance and analysis of the Who Owns Appalachia report.
Special thanks to Shuanna Scott for her interview about the past and future land studies, and also to Ashlei Laing for her technical assistance with the filming of the interview.
Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force (1983) Who Owns Appalachia? Landownership and Its Impact. Appalachian Studies. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.
John Gaventa (1982) Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley. University of Illinois Press.
Helen Lewis, Linda Johnson & Donald Askins (1978) Colonialism in Modern America: The Appalachian Case. Appalachian Consortium Press.
Shaunna L. Scott. (2012) “What Difference Did It Make?: The Appalachian Land Ownership Study Twenty-Five Years Later.” Academics and Activists: Confronting Ecological and Community Crisis in Appalachia. Stephanie McSpirit, Lynne Faltraco and Conner Bailey, eds. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.
"It Never Was a Clear Path": Reflections on Change and Consistency and Meaning in the Work that You Choose
For those of us who work in international development, consulting and social change, it is usually a long and winding road to get to this field. Even when you’re solidly in the work, it’s still tempestuous, going from country to country, state to state, assignment to assignment, working with all manner of partners, from government agencies to citizen associations. In the midst of the work, and the excitement and fulfillment that comes with it, it’s easy to become accustomed to all of this variability, even expect it.
I was recently asked to speak at Sewanee, my undergraduate institution, to a group of upper level students who are nearing graduation and who have interests in careers in non-profit, international development and other socially oriented professions. Spur of the moment, we videoed the talk. As it was shot from far across the room, the production quality isn’t perfect, but I thought it would be a valuable way to share some of the thoughts that came to mind when I stepped back and looked at my professional evolution over the past 18 years since leaving university myself.
I’ve summarized the four main points of the talk below. Themes of change, learning and reinvention predominate, but also a recognition that there are also some important constants, in particular the moral conviction and personal commitment that drew me to the work in the first place and that keeps me motivated through all of the long haul flights, time away and the myriad of uncertainties that accompany each project.
In the talk I focused on four areas where I encouraged students to question conventional wisdom, regarding failure, careers, non-profit versus for-profit work and the international versus local sphere:
1) No such thing as failure
In life, as in projects, things rarely go as planned. However, the upending of a plan or collapse of a dream isn’t failure fullstop, but an opportunity for learning and reinvention. Unexpected changes will hurt in the moment, but try to see these shocks as what another participant in the program labeled ‘beautiful collisions’ which send you down new and unexpected paths, which are perhaps inherently more rich because of their emergent, unforeseen nature.
I left university expecting to go into political work and law. More than a year on the road with Al Gore’s presidential campaign and the messy end to that election at the US Supreme Court sent me reeling back home to Tennessee, to Appalachia and into community work. I still aspired for several years to go to law school before realizing I hadn’t run away from my calling by working in community, rather I had finally come to it. Letting go of old dreams isn’t failure, it’s self-discovery.
2) No such thing as a career
There are very few people who will stay in the same job their whole lives. Not only will most people change organizations multiple times, increasingly we all will leap from sector to sector, from non-profit to for-profit to government and back again. This doesn’t have to be a source of anxiety but can instead be a source of energy and regeneration. If one toils continually in the same work in the same location, most people will grow tired and cynical and feel constrained in their opportunities and contributions. By changing locations and roles we learn more, have impact on new colleagues and influence the wider world through a variety of avenues.
Ultimately it isn’t really about the job anyway; it’s about the commitment you make, the contribution you want to send out into the world through your energy and gifts. The job is only a vehicle for this. The job will inevitably shift but the commitment can remain the same.
Even when I worked as a political organizer, I was happiest in small rural communities, listening to people and understanding their challenges. I struggled at having to rush away from these connections when the next round of primaries catapulted me abruptly to another state. In working in community development, I enjoyed the substance and impact of these relationships, over years not months. After 5 years working with the same communities and people, I moved on from my position as a service-learning facilitator and pursued an academic route in graduate school. Afterward I worked as a university faculty member and a university administrator, but always wanting to bring my students and institutions in close contact with communities. I found this easier to do working on my own as an independent consultant, educator and researcher and so started Empyrean Research in 2014.
My story hardly looks like a well-planned career path, but the thread that connects is my faith in communities and in everyday people to make good change in the world.
3) No more far away
It’s no longer a choice of whether to work locally or to work globally. The globe is more interconnected than ever and becoming smaller with each passing day. Our everyday actions have impacts across the world. Whether or not you actually travel or live outside of your native country, your colleagues, organization and products will reach across the globe and link you to multinational networks and result in impacts halfway around the planet. More than ever the internet and social media allow us individually to build networks and alliances with friends and colleagues everywhere who share our commitments and vision.
Particularly for those under the age of 25, your generation will be one of the most influential in history as your peer group across the world is massive, especially in the Global South. As my colleague Anita Patil-Deshmukh noted in an earlier Empyrean Research blog, “The world has never been so young.” Use the resources at hand and connect, connect, connect.
When I began community development work in rural Tennessee in 2001, I never anticipated it would lead me to a life as a global citizen. However, within two years I was visiting Bangladesh, studying examples of innovative rural community development that inspired and informed my work back in the US. That’s still the basic pattern of my work. Learning from, sharing with and connecting communities. In a given year, I typically work in several states in the US and a half-dozen countries around the word. It’s not about East or West, Global North or South. It all connects, it all relates. Ideas, innovations and inspiring action exist everywhere and communicate universally. I’m fortunate to be at the coalface of this exchange, but all of us are now involved in it in some form.
4) No such thing as a strictly non-profit livelihood
As well it will be very difficult to make a lifelong livelihood strictly in the non-profit world. The non-profit model is a challenging one which requires continual fundraising and grant-writing. Competition for resources is equally if not more fierce than in the for-profit arena. For this reason, non-profits are often unsustainable as a business model. This vulnerability has led to the rise of innovational organizational models such as social enterprises which generate their own revenue through for-profit activities but direct this income to socially valuable ends, or mosaic organizations which combine for-profit components and non-profits programs in a sustainable organizational eco-system. As such your skill set will likely need to span all sectors.
Fellow Sewanee graduate Becca Stevens has demonstrated the power of such integrated models with her nationally recognized social enterprise Thistle Farms, which supports intensive recovery and job training programs for survivors of sex trafficking. The organization’s programs are in large part funded by the sale of a bath and body product line produced in house and sold by Thistle Farms itself.
Again, it’s not the job or the role or classification of the organization that will matter. It will be your personal commitment which underlies and spans all of these roles and brings consistency, impact and fulfillment from your work.
I’ve worked in government, non-profits, universities, political organizations and now own my own business. Empyrean does the work of a research think-tank but is situated in the private sector. I consult with universities, government agencies, citizen groups and NGOs. I have to understand the political economy and room to maneuver for each of these entities within their sectors. I have to be able to analyze and strategize from their positionality and not just my own.
I don’t see consulting as a final destination by any means. The greater goal is to start a new university one day soon. But given all the roles I’ve played, the consulting I’ve done and my commitments to community and social justice, don’t think that this new university will be academia in any conventional sense; it will be a product of this new hybridized and integrated world.
Don’t Expect a Straight Path
Whether you are a college student nearing graduation like the students I addressed in October or a mid-career professional, the rules are changing for all of us. The old ways are shifting if not falling away entirely. Don’t be bound by the old lines or by mindsets, your own or those of others that are outdated. Prepare to be agile and adaptable. As Hamlet reminds us, “The readiness is all.”
As I told the students that day of my own journey, “It never was a clear path. It was always going to be complicated. It was always going to be fraught.” The future for those students, and for all of us, remains no less complicated and unpredictable. Prepare to embrace the unexpected rather than clinging to the past. If you hold tight to your commitments and the clarity you have about what you want to give to the world, then opportunities to live out this commitment will emerge in any context and in any role.
The world is not waiting with a job or waiting to fulfill your expectations. It never was, but the world is indeed waiting for you.
What commitment have you made or will you make to help mend this world?
Felix is the founder and director of Empyrean Research. Based in Tennessee, he travels widely with his work for Empyrean.
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