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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For me, participation is an approach, a way of working and being, not a tool or a method.
I have been a practitioner of participatory methods for some 15 years. Initially it was an intuitive way to work with people. As my practice grew I found my way to the literature and methods which constitute the body of knowledge around participation, eventually becoming an active contributor to this discourse myself.
While I find that the language of participation pops up most everywhere I turn, I’m often troubled by the superficiality in which this approach is understood and practiced. Two years ago I wrote and published an article which examined how participation in research processes can be transformative and creates change on at least 5 levels. While parsing out these kinds/levels of change is useful, I think there is more to understand about how change happens when work is approached in a participatory/co-generative way.
In this 3 part piece I will explore three ways of understanding change through participation. First I will delve into the idea of transformative knowledge and the different levels at which change occurs through participatory processes. In the subsequent installments, I will explore the idea of participation as embodiment and as the regeneration of knowledge systems.
Participation and Transformative Knowledge
Several years ago I was the evaluation and learning facilitator for a global research program called Participate. The aim was to co-generate a bottom-up, citizen-led articulation of what the then still-undetermined Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) should prioritize from the perspective of poor and marginal communities. The program brought together 18 participatory research organizations from around the world. The overall process was highly diverse and many heterogeneous methods were used in the creation of the data for the project.
Those of us involved in the research felt that the methods used and created for Participate deserved attention in their own right. We created an anthology which documented the many innovative practices used in the program. My contribution was a short conceptual chapter on the idea of how participatory processes create a unique form of ‘transformative knowledge’ which is different from the knowledge produced through conventional kinds of research processes.
5 Levels of Change Through Participation
The anthology article posited that participatory processes facilitate knowledge creation which enables transformative change at potentially five different levels:
1) transforming of research practice,
2) transforming of practitioners engaged in the process,
3) transformation of the organizations carrying out the process,
4) transformation of communities where the work is carried out
5) transformation of policy, based on a clearer understanding of
people’s lived experiences.
I have included the full article at the end of this piece.
I wrote this chapter in early 2014. Through my various consulting, research and teaching activities since then, I have continued to reflect on this idea of transformative knowledge. Indeed helping to co-create transformative knowledge has become the mission statement of Empyrean Research. I find it a compelling concept which I think begins to capture the full range of impacts created by participatory practices.
Missing the Larger Point?
Encouragingly, I run into people at many universities and organizations who say they use participatory research methods, particularly participatory action research (PAR).
Discouragingly, I find that their understanding and practice of such methods leans toward only the instrumental/policy outcomes end of this spectrum. It is evident to them that participation creates better data about the nuances of people’s lives, situations, challenges, etc. This information can be quite helpful in developing new procedures, protocols, policy, etc., and certainly this is quite valuable.
However, I find that these same practitioners often miss the other possible levels of transformation. For them, participatory methods are simply a tool for better data, what Argyris and Schön would call a form of ‘single loop’ learning, enabling a practitioner to ‘do things better’. I find many academics and development organizations ‘doing participation’ because it is a better way to gather information, giving them better data/results, which is of course a positive outcome. Nevertheless, I would argue that participation in research, understood more deeply, opens up the potential for ‘double loop’ learning. For Argyris and Schön double looping learning is transformative and fundamentally shifts one’s original understanding. Instead of learning to ‘do things better’, you learn how to ‘do better things’.
Participation in research redefines and expands the research endeavor from an instrumental, linear process driven by a quest for answers to a process of learning and empowerment for all involved. The outcome of an exogenous policy change based on empirical data is only one potential end result. Indeed, results at the other levels I have described are also possible even when the policy outcomes do not occur.
Seeing the Unexpected in Appalachia and India
Last week I traveled to the University of Kentucky in Lexington to meet with a coalition of researchers and community organizers who will be launching a new Appalachian land ownership study, a follow up to the landmark Who Owns Appalachia participatory action research study carried out in the region in the late 1970s/early 1980s. The study was landmark because it clarified a very obfuscated picture about absentee, corporate land ownership in the region and showed how extreme the problem was.
Three decades on, the study has not resulted in fundamental policy change or marked change on the ground. Land ownership in the central Appalachian region remains massively unequal and swayed toward corporate holding of land. As well, the opacity about what groups own what tracts of land remains.
However, as researcher Dr. Shaunna Scott has documented, the land ownership study did create other positive changes in the region. It generated connections and networks in the Appalachian region which are still active today, facilitated the creation of organizations in the region such as Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC), and opened the door for other political/policy outcomes not envisioned when the study began, such as the end of property tax exemptions for coal companies in the state of Kentucky. Further, the study put participatory action research on the map as a powerful tool for research and social change. Appalachia remains a hotbed for participatory action research, where organizations like the Highlander Research and Education Center continue to use and teach participatory action research as one of its core approaches. I will post and video interview with Dr. Scott in the coming weeks where she describes these unanticipated outcomes on of the land ownership study in greater detail.
As the land ownership study demonstrates, the instrumental/policy outcome of a participatory project is a limited lens through which to see. Because of the transformative, empowering aspects of the work, many other changes are also possible at other levels, and over long spans of time.
Next week I will post an interview with Dr. Anita Patil-Deshmukh of PUKAR (Partners in Urban Knowledge, Action and Research), a community-level, participatory research think-tank which operates in Mumbai. In describing the work of PUKAR’s community-based researchers, Dr. Anita also breaks down the various levels of change that participatory research has catalyzed for her ‘barefoot’ researchers—practitioner-level, family-level, community-level, and policy level.
Whether in my native Appalachia region or in India, engaging with participatory practitioners around the world has only further clarified the importance of recognizing these different levels of change generated by these processes.
But Also How
As I noted at the beginning of this post, my reflections on my recent work have led me to probe more deeply not only into the levels of change created by participation, but also to think more about how change happens through the participatory approach. In part 2 of this post, I will explore participation as embodiment and congruence. The final post will return to the idea of transformative knowledge and how participation is not only about co-generation of knowledge but also about the regeneration of knowledge systems.
 Shahrokh, T. and J. Wheeler (eds.) (2014) Knowledge from the Margins: An anthology from a global study on participatory practice and policy influence. Brighton: IDS.
 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
Welcome to Empyrean Research.
We’re new kids on the block but we come with lots of experience and motivation to help groups and communities that are in need and to work with organizations that want to go in new directions.
I am the director at Empyrean Research. I come to this work with a background in community development, international development and academia. I have worked inside universities and think tanks. And while these organizations do a lot of good in their own way, they are like giant tanker ships. They ply the deep waters and dock at the large ports—but they never reach the small islands, the out of the way harbors, or the inland areas far from the coast.
I created Empyrean Research to give my collaborators and me the freedom to reach those other waters--by which I mean those communities and organizations that may be too small or too remote to have regular access to university researchers or think tank consultants.
We work with the those who are struggling to make change wherever they are anywhere in the world:
We bring research tools and methods to help your organizations become more successful at creating good change in your community. We work in participatory ways using collaborative research methods. Don’t worry: the idea isn't to do research on your community or even for your group, but to do it with you-- to arrive at a better understanding by working and learning together so that in the end we leave your organization with the capacity to carry out similar analysis in the future on your own.
We also work with larger institutions that are looking for better ways to engage with and support their communities:
We provide models and tools for building better partnerships and collaborations. We help governments link more effectively with citizen groups and civil society, universities to engage better with their surrounding communities and businesses to create more meaningful corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs.
Our commitment is to careful listening and original thinking. We are not replicating or scaling up a one-size-fits-all model from some other context. We design context-specific research models and processes that are premised on the needs and realities of your community and your organization.
Through our projects we work to create transformative knowledge. We believe that transformative knowledge rarely comes from the outside—rather it comes from changes in assumptions and relationships inside of a community or organization. Our goal is to create within your group those new kinds of transformative understandings that open up new possibilities for action and change.
Please explore our website and the growing body of posts on this blog to learn more about how we work here at Empyrean Research. We look forward to your inquiries about how we can support your organization and your community.
Felix is the founder and director of Empyrean Research. Based in Tennessee, he travels widely with his work for Empyrean.
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