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.
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?
Lessons from PUKAR, Pt 2: “The World is So Young” Youth-Focused Community-Based Participatory Action Research at Scale
This is the second and final part of a two-part blog series about PUKAR (Participatory Urban Knowledge and Action). For Part 1 of this blog, please click here. To see the Empyrean Research video interview with PUKAR director Anita Patil-Deshmukh, please click here or watch the embedded video at the end of this post.
Dr. Anita Patil-Deshmuhk joined PUKAR (Participatory Urban Knowledge and Action) in 2005 and immediately launched a new participatory action research fellowship which focused on skilling young people to carry out action research activities in their own communities. In her interview for Empyrean Research, Anita notes that the purpose of the youth fellowship is “create knowledge at the community level, through their lens, based on their aspirations, their problems, desires and issues, to create new knowledge which could not be created in an academic organization.”
PUKAR’s Youth Fellowship Program reminded me very much of work I had supported in east Tennessee several years ago with the Clearfork Community Institute (CCI), where my colleagues Michelle Mockbee, Marie Cirillo and Carol Judy designed a Community Led Action Research (CLAR) program which worked with young adults from the mountain communities in Campbell and Claiborne Counties of Central Appalachia. As was central to the CLAR work at CCI, Anita says that the purpose of the youth fellowship is to “generate the capacity to aspire” for young people living in challenging circumstances.
The youth fellowship program is open to anyone 35 and under, with no educational credential required to join. The participants in the program are a cross section of the city, from students at secondary schools to young construction laborers. The fellows commit to one year of learning and researching, giving up their Sundays for twelve consecutive months to participate in the weekly training sessions.
Students are organized in research teams of ten members. As a participatory, co-generative process, the participants have wide leeway in selecting the topic of their PAR inquires. PUKAR’s only guidance is that the work must be anchored in the young person’s locality and in the issues which effect their life’s condition. Through the process of designing the action research project and implementing it, Anita emphasized that participants learn not only research skills but also consensus building, teamwork and a capacity to work across diverse populations.
Although such projects require much support from PUKAR, the organization has managed to scale this program impressively. 300 youth researchers are trained through the fellowship program each year. The curriculum for the fellowship includes three core themes: 1) self-discovery 2) research skills and 3) social realities (caste, religion, inequality/justice). The research teams progress through a series of modules then begin to work in their teams as their action inquires begin. They are supported throughout by a research mentor from the PUKAR team.
At the end of the process, PUKAR holds a massive research dissemination event in which all of the fellowship teams present their research to their families, community members, research partners and other interested parties. This research findings fair is followed by a celebration of the young researchers, who take the stage to reflect on their experience of the program. I attended the end of program event this year in June and saw these young researchers in action. Their topics ranged from creating safe spaces for children in informal settlements, to addressing government policies to revive a community street market for local traders, to equitable public bathroom facilities for transgender individuals, and many more.
Having written extensively about how to evaluate change in action research using a 5 level ‘transformative knowledge’ framework (Bivens 2014), it was gratifying to hear Anita articulate a very similar cascade of impacts in terms of the changes the youth fellowship program produces:
"There is an enormous amount of self-transformation that the process brings. The transformation happens in them. It happens in their families, in the communities with whom they work, and of course it happens in PUKAR. We have changed a lot since this whole thing started."
While I had not made the family unit one of my levels of change in my earlier transformative knowledge framework, PUKAR’s projects, with their youth focus, do indeed expose families to new experiences. Anita provided an example of how one youth researcher’s family was deeply moved by attending a theater performance developed by transgender individuals in which the performers shared their daily challenges and dangers of life in Mumbai. The performance was a research output of the young person’s PAR work with a transgender group. The youth researcher's mother and the aunt were originally uncomfortable with the topic, but in order to support their young person's work, they were willing to attend the performance, to learn and ultimately to have their perspective on the issue turned upside down by their direct engagement with the transgender individuals and their stories which were surfaced during in the research process and performance.
Moreover, PUKAR’s youth fellowship programs have had measurable impacts in communities more broadly. Anita pointed to a youth fellowship project which managed to increase the child immunization rate in a particular Mumbai slum from 29%-90.7%. By mapping and documenting the situation, the youths’ work made it easier to get policy and ministerial assistance to support a targeted immunization campaign in the community.
Although these direct outcomes are important, Anita also emphasizes the meta-level significance of such work in building an “electoral, inclusive, participatory democracy.” This is often a theory of change underlying PAR work. PUKAR believes that building research skills simultaneously builds capacity for active citizenship. Given the sheer volume of young people in the world at the current time—young people under 30 comprise between 50-70% of the populations of most countries in the global south—PUKAR’s work to empower youth through research at scale is powerful. In her interview, Anita urges others to build programs which facilitate such deep, constructive youth engagement:
"Understand the importance of youth and their aspirations. Work with them because the world is so young. The world has never been this young before. If you want to bring about long term changes in the way this world is going, we think it needs to be made inclusive. Development has to be inclusive, development has to be participatory… These are the people who are going to decide where the world is going to go. It is important to enable them with knowledge and skills and right attitude. That will help everybody. Your security will depend on the equality or inequality for people in ‘third world countries.’"
Anita’s words resonate strongly as I write this. I am currently partnering with the United States Institute of Peace to use participatory action research as a method to empower marginal youth in several Sub-Saharan African countries. Through this project I am collaborating with colleagues and young people in Uganda, where 68% of the country’s population is under 30 years old. The future of this country, often called the “Pearl of Africa”, depends on the how effectively the nation's young people are prepared to take their country forward. I would argue, like PUKAR, that engaging youth to start now in building the communities and countries they want to live in is best way to build a future that they—and we—can all share and value.
Inclusion and participation aren’t just ways of making development more youth or community friendly. Participation is fundamentally about instilling in people a belief that they can shape the world they want to live in, cultivating their agency to put that vision into action through critical thinking, collaboration and civic engagement with the wider institutions of one’s community, country and society. These are skills the world needs desparately at the moment, in the global north as well as in the global south. PUKAR's youth programs provide a clear and effectively methodology for helping young people to develop these skills while simultaneously contributing to the betterment of their communities.
Bivens, F. (2014) "Networked knowledge as networked power: recovering and mobilising transformative knowledge through Participate." In Knowledge from the Margins: An anthology from a global network on participatory practice and policy influence. T. Shahrokh and J. Wheeler, eds. Institute of Development Studies, Brighton.
Lessons from PUKAR, Pt 1: “The Right to Research.” Community-Based Participatory Action Research in the Slums of Mumbai
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 Anita Patil-Deshmukh, the executive director of PUKAR, at their offices in Mumbai.
PUKAR (Participatory Urban Knowledge and Action) is a participatory action research think tank which concentrates on urban and youth issues in the sprawling mega-city of Mumbai, India. The mission of the organization was inspired the writings of Arjun Apurdurai, with an intent to put the sociocultural anthropologist’s ideas for democratizing knowledge production and research into action. Asserting a “right to research”, Apurdurai (2004) argued knowledge and research should be produced where people live, by the people who live in that situation and context.
From the beginning PUKAR was interested improving the quality of life for Mumbai’s citizens, many of whom live in the city’s 2000 informal settlements, which are often referred to simply as ‘slums’. These cobbled together cities within cities can house up to 1 million people. Indeed, more than half of the city’s 21 million people are estimated to live in these unplanned communities.
PUKAR critiqued Mumbai’s conventional urban planning processes, which drew exclusively on technical experts and excluded the voices and knowledge of the people who lived in the city, in particular the knowledge of those in the informal areas which most needed improvements to infrastructure and public services.
Like Empyrean Research, PUKAR believes that knowledge which is contextual is incredibly powerful for addressing problems at the local level, providing insights and unlocking resources and relationships which facilitate change. With this frame in mind, the PUKAR team set out in the late 1990s to create processes of knowledge generation which surfaced the experience of the people living in the city’s slums.
Central to the approach that PUKAR developed is an understanding of “documentation as intervention.” Although each person in a community has a fund of knowledge about their daily lived experiences, it is considered anecdotal when it’s simply in people’s heads; however, when it’s documented and aggregated systematically, so that its visible and tangible, it can be leveraged more widely, with policy makers and other influential stakeholders.
In this vein, PUKAR works on several fronts to co-generate knowledge about health and social dimensions of life in the city’s slums. As well PUKAR works extensively with youth on some thirty projects a year, across the city and its suburbs, which also surface and utilize community knowledge as a tool for transformation. This last program, PUKAR’s Youth Fellowship Program, will be discussed in more detail in the next blog in this series.
The right to research, as expressed by Apurdurai and PUKAR, is about the right of people to be heard and recognized for what they know and have learned over years about the situations in which they live. Only they are their experts in their lives. When their knowledge and experiences are taken seriously, they recognize quickly that solutions, partial or maybe even complete, are close at hand.
Like the old man in Eckhart Tolle’s parable of the beggar on the box, who has for as long as he can remember begged while sitting on his only possession, a battered metal box. One day a passerby asks the beggar, “What’s in your box?” The beggar tells him that it is empty. He is certain of it for he has carried it around for years. At length, when passerby finally persuades the beggar to open his worthless box, the old man discovers it is filled with gold.
In so many cases, for so many communities, their treasure is also close at hand. With validation, with strategic support, with their collective knowledge fitted together through effective co-generation and analysis, their boxes too can be opened and the possibility of a better future revealed.
Having explored participation as embodiment in the previous post, the third and final part of this piece brings me to the idea of participation as the regeneration of knowledge systems. (Click here to read Part 1 and Part 2 in this series.)
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.
As I have reflected more on the transformative nature of participatory practices, other ways of explaining the potential of these processes have emerged for me, not just levels of change related to transformative knowledge, but greater nuance on how change happens. Two terms which I have found illuminating in this regard are embodiment and regeneration.
In part 2 of this 3 part piece, I will dig into participation as embodiment, performance and congruence. (Click here to read Part 1 in this series.)
Participation as a Way of Working, Knowing and Being
Embodiment is a useful way to think about the quality and form of change that happens in participation. Transformation is in itself a vague term. Admittedly when I use the term ‘transformation’, there’s an built-in assumption that I mean ‘good change’. However transformation doesn’t provide much clarity about how or why change occurs.
In my experience, the transformation generated through participatory methods is about coming to embody and act in congruence with the values and practices of participation in a wider sense, beyond a particular research process or project. If participation is not a tool but an approach, if participation is not simply a method but also a way of relating to people and to living, practiced forms of knowledge, then engaging in participation is not a temporary or atavistic orientation which can be flipped on or off at a particular moment.
Rather participation opens a door and calls people and groups to embody participation, to perform participation, collaboration, and co-generation in their ways of working and being, personally and organizationally. As with participation itself, this idea of embodiment is asymptotic. One can never reach a perfect model of participation or embody it completely. Falling short of the mark, even contradiction, comes with the territory when reaching into new spaces as a practitioner, organization or community, but the call to embody the values of participation is powerful and valuable—and manageable.
The Small Things
Gandhi’s call to ‘be the change one wants to see in the world’ always produces in me a sense of vertigo given the sheer scope of trying to embody and correct all the problems I see and feel in the world. Indeed, the recently-sainted Mother Teresa’s call to do ‘small things with great love’ often feels more possible and seems to capture more closely the idea of embodiment I am describing here.
In my work I cannot immediately or directly change the organizations, universities or communities that I work with to be more democratic or participative, but I can demonstrate these processes in my ways of working. I can attempt to embody participation in a variety of smalls ways in how I relate to and engage with my colleagues. I can listen deeply and fully. I can dialogue open-mindedly. I can acknowledge specifically where their ideas/experiences have helped me to see more clearly, or differently. I can approach meetings, workshops and consultancies as a chance to learn together rather than as a chance to provide an answer or reach a conclusion that serves my needs and reifies my patterns of thought. I can approach teaching as a relationship and exchange rather than a Fed-Ex/DHL-style information delivery service. Participation is about being present to the latent potential locked within any group and situation.
Knowledge Catalyst, Conduit and Cistern
As a participatory practitioner it is not my role to be a solver or a closer or a fixer. Otherwise I become a crutch because the solution is coming from me, not from the group I am supporting. Participation creates a space which invites the group’s knowledge into the discussion, to surface experiences and understandings which are fragmented or suppressed by power relations and hierarchies. I am the conduit to help that knowledge flow, to reach different systemic spaces and levels. I am the holder of space where these understandings are gathered together for collective analysis. I am the aqueduct and cistern, not the water. The community, organization, or class almost always has the knowledge they need. What is needed instead is a means to bring that knowledge together and a catalyst for those in the situation to recognize the immensity, capacity and potential of their collective knowledge for addressing the problem at hand. That is increasingly the need I try to address and embody as a participatory practitioner.
Embodiment is more than standing back and being a facilitator, however. ‘Facipulation’ is all too common in the facilitation and participation world, that is using participatory processes as weigh-stations along a predetermined path that ends up exactly where the facilitator intended—or an even a more naïve faith that a series of participatory methods performed formulaically as a workshop will magically result in a meaningful experience and outcome for participants. Embodiment is about showing up in the now and responding to opportunities moment by moment, performing, improving, and helping others to see what is emerging, to see the connections in the ideas they are articulating and to provide a scaffolding from which coherent understanding and action can result.
As I refine my own approach as a practitioner to better embody the values and practices of participation, I see the knock-on effect of how these ways of working are contagious in the spaces I have contributed to. Organizations experiment to achieve more horizontal and emergent ways of working. Employees leave organizations in search of work cultures which are more collaborative and empowering. Students note on their teaching reviews how my description and performance of teaching as a learning partnership between professor and student fundamentally challenges their ways of approaching knowledge. They overturn a habit of seeing themselves as empty vessels to be filled intellectually and recognize their own knowledge/experience as a foundational piece of their learning and not something to be downplayed or exiled and replaced with ‘authoritative’ content. In this way, even the ‘small things’ created ripples which eventually grow large.
Be Here Now (So You Won’t Be Needed Later)
To embody participation is to participate. Not to lead or drive or to wait quietly with an answer from another context, but to throw out the map and make the path by walking with those you are called to work with. It can’t be done perfectly, but it can be done transparently, providing an example that continues to support learning and change even after you have moved on.
Indeed, the most valuable outcome left behind by participatory processes isn’t an answer, but a regenerated capacity to know, analyze and act. In the final part of this piece, I will further explore this idea of participation as regeneration.
Felix is the founder and director of Empyrean Research. Based in Tennessee, he travels widely with his work for Empyrean.
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