"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.
Another way to distinguish the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) from the rest of the global south: the composition of the outbound flight when you board at the major hub in North America or Europe.
On a flight to Mumbai or Beijing, the moment you step onboard you feel like you’ve already arrived. 80% plus of the passengers are Indian or Chinese respectively, a mix of business professionals and families in transit related to their global lifestyles and livelihoods. Last week I boarded the flight from Amsterdam to Kampala and it was totally the opposite. 80% white faces with a few Ugandan nationals interspersed. Just in my row there are Italian aid workers and American missionaries, on their missions of diverse kinds.
I’m not well placed to make judgments about either approach. I came into develop through church-funded international projects. On this day I’m a development worker on the way to facilitate a participatory action research (PAR) peacebuilding training. How am I different than any other outsider in view on this flight?
There is some definite merit in my focus on participation, on local knowledge and local folks to make the change. Hopefully that perspective will get wrapped into the approach of the local NGOs and leaders I am working with so that they bring out the best in their students and communities in terms of taking charge of their own processes of development.
Still, I have to look at this plane view a bit grimly and see the persisting inequality and the cognitive injustice of all these ideas, secular and spiritual, flying into a place with a history longer than any of our cultural homes in the north. So let me set the intention to carry ideas home from this trip and, when I can, bring my African colleagues to Empyrean in Tennessee to teach, share and train from their experience and perspective.
Our systems of justice and development are far, far from sufficient. Let us continue to question our motives and our effectiveness and push always for something which better embodies the end result we want to see, rather than reproducing the old forms in new spaces, with new names, though still equally recognizable by who’s on the ‘bus’ and who’s not.
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
Empyrean Research’s Interview with the UNESCO Chair for Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education, Part 2
Greetings from Mumbai.
I am here with students from Northeastern University’s Social Enterprise Institute on the final days of their program in India. Over the past few weeks, despite a record-setting heatwave, we have experienced excellent learning opportunities with organizations such as the Barefoot College in Rajasthan and the Civic Response Team in Aurangabad. (More on the Barefoot visit in a future post and video.)
This week my teaching colleagues and I have been supporting several exciting student action research/consulting projects with four organizations based here in the 20+ million metropolis of Mumbai, including the Dharavi Project/ACORN India, Yuva Parivartan, Vandana Foundation and Sammrudhi.
This blogpost is the second in a two-part series based on a recent interview with Budd Hall and Rajesh Tandon, who together serve as the UNESCO Chair for Community Based Research (CBR) and Social Responsibility in Higher Education. In the previous excerpt from the video, Tandon and Hall discussed the history and goals of the CBR Chair.
In this short segment from that same interview, Hall discusses two recent publications which the CBR Chair completed in conjunction with a wider team of colleagues from around the world.
The first book, Strengthening Community University Research Partnerships (CURPs), had its genesis in a global survey of community based research activities involving university and civil society respondents from 60 countries, to assess the level and nature of community based research activities around the globe. The full survey findings can be found here. Working similarly in this global vein, the book, edited by Hall, Tandon and University of Victoria researcher Crystal Tremblay, offers in depth descriptions of CURP activities in 12 different national contexts including: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Jordan, the Netherlands, South Africa, Uganda, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Like the CBR Chair itself, the book includes both university and the civil society perspectives on CURP activities. As such the analysis offered is not exclusively derived from or offered to universities, but also includes insights and examples from the dynamic CBR space which exists beyond the walls of academia. The 12 national level studies are framed by a collection of analytical chapters, including one with a focus on institutionalizing community university research partnerships written by myself, Johanna Haffenden and Budd Hall. The concluding chapters highlight the strengths and the gaps discerned through analysis of the volume's various cases. While the global survey and the cases in the book demonstrate that community engagement is by no means the exclusive purview of universities in the global north, and that innovative research collaborations are happening on all of the populated continents, the deeper analysis points toward an ad hoc approach which underlies these activities.
Analysis by Tandon and Wafa Singh point toward a lack of intentional training and capacity building for CURP activities within universities, particularly in relation to participatory methods, and an absence of university investment in building the research capacity of the civil society sector in their respective countries. Shared governance and financial management of research funds was also found to be a rarity, with universities still holding most power in CURP activities. While the majority of respondents in the global survey cited the ‘co-generation of knowledge’ as an essential element of CURPs, only 15% of participating institutions reported having mechanisms which enable inquires to emerge from the side of community.
The gaps and challenges highlighted in the first book are taken up in a series of recommendations and best practices outlined in a second companion book, Institutionalizing Community University Research Partnerships: A User’s Manual. As Hall notes in the video clip above, this book targets primarily university leaders and staff who are interested in strengthening their institution’s capacities to carry out CURP activities in an equitable and collaborative manner. Like any product user manual, the structure of the book is simple to navigate and the chapters are brief. Basic issues such as policy, institutionalization, governance, capacity building, funding and research dissemination are all discussed. Specific examples of good practices are drawn from the cases in the companion book and offered in block quotes at the end of each chapter. These examples help to address the challenges raised in the first book regarding the setting of the research agenda, shared governance and explicit methodological processes for the co-generation of knowledge.
Both those well-versed in CBR and those new to the practice will find value in these texts and the numerous institutional examples drawn from the 12 national studies. Both books have been published as open access, Creative Commons resources and so are free for download in their entirety. Additional resources related to community based research generated by the UNESCO CBR Chair are available for download here.
Empyrean Research’s Interview with the UNESCO Chair for Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education, Part 1
Greetings from Delhi.
So far 2016 has been chock-a-block full of new research and training opportunities around the world. I’ve just wrapped up a three week piece of organizational learning and research design in Cape Town, South Africa, with the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation, including a deep dive into participatory digital storytelling with Joanna Wheeler. I’m now in India for a month of social enterprise and reflective practice co-teaching with Sara Minard of Northeastern University’s Social Enterprise Institute.
As a result of this exciting but hectic schedule, I’m way behind on blogposts.
This blog is centered around an interview with the UNESCO Chair for Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education that we recorded in New York at the end of 2015. It’s taken a bit of time to get it edited and ready to release, but I’m pleased to be sharing it finally.
UNESCO Chair Programme “promotes international inter-university cooperation and networking to enhance institutional capacities through knowledge sharing and collaborative work.” There are almost 700 Chairs, each with its own research area that it works to promote and build capacity for at the university level. Most chairs are based at universities.
The Chair for Community Based Research (CBR) and Social Responsibility in Higher Education is unusual in that it is co-hosted by a university, the University of Victoria, in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, and a civil society organization (CSO), PRIA, based here in Delhi. The choice to have this Chair co-hosted by a university and a CSO is emblematic of the aims of the CBR Chair, to recognize that research is not the exclusive domain of universities but is a tool that can be used in cooperation with and by civil society and communities at large to create knowledge and generate positive change.
The organizers of the CBR Chair, Budd Hall at UVic and Rajesh Tandon at PRIA, were also intentional about having the dual-institutional structure of the Chair span the north-south global development distinction. In general, the global production of knowledge, particularly in the university/academic system, is disproportionately based in the north and at northern universities. Community based research, and other forms of participatory research, have always challenged the dominance of the north in the research sphere. Indeed, some of the most influential thinkers in the field, including Paulo Freire and Orlando Fals Borda, hailed from the global south and gave the movement a distinctly different flavor going back to the 1960-70s. As such community based research and participatory research have co-evolved within an environment where practitioners in both the north and south have been active and visible contributors to the field. As well, the professional location of these practitioners has been as often outside of the university system as within in. The dual nature of the CBR Chair aims to reflect this global and institutional breadth which have always been at the vibrant center of community based and participatory processes.
In their roles as the co-directors of the Chair, Tandon and Hall have worked to document the rapidly evolving global practice of community based research. Since the Chair was established in 2012, it has led on the publication of several books and a variety of open access knowledge products on CBR, drawing together globally diverse case studies, methodologies and practitioners. In 2015, they published two books on community university research partnerships. These publications will be the focus of the next blog in this Empyrean Research series.
The Chair is has also just launched an extensive training and capacity building initiative called NextGen which is providing training in CBR and other participatory methods to CSOs and young academics in the global south.
In the video interview below, Hall and Tandon provide offer background on the why they worked to create the Chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education and describe their activities and findings over the past four years:
This blog has been quiet for a while, but I will be reviving it over the coming weeks and months as a precursor to revamping the entire Empyrean Research website. I'll also be adding some punch to the blog by intermittently adding some video interviews.
First up in this vein is my interview with Lisa Heenan of the Regrarians. She and her husband Darren Doherty are globally recognized for their work as sustainable farm designers. They consult widely with landowners and farmers to help them create agricultural systems which work effectively and collaboratively with the local climate and landscape. Darren also leads 30+ workshops a year across the planet sharing his methods and expertise.
Some colleagues and I traveled to one of the Regrarian workshops earlier this month, hosted at Farfields Farm in Afton, VA. The focus of the workshop was on earthworks for water catchment and management. During the five day program, we participated in the construction of a ridge pond, in keyline plowing and as well as in the re-contouring of farm roads to integrate them as additional components in the property's water catchment system.
Lisa and Darren also shared one of their recent projects, a full length documentary film about Polyface Farms, in Swoope, Virginia. Featured in The Omnivore's Dilemma and many other books, Polyface is one of the world's best-known regenerative farming operations. It's commitment to sustainability has not reduced the efficiency or productivity of the farm, which provides food to more than 5000 families.
Lisa and Darren's film, Polyfaces: A World of Many Choices, takes an in- depth look at the regenerative practices utilized at Polyface. The film also delves into the social dynamics of the farm, the intergenerational efforts of the Salatin family who own the business, and the role of women in building and sustaining one of the world's most celebrated farming operations.
Although the film has not yet been released, workshop participants were treated to a private screening of the documentary. Polyfaces will premiere in December in Los Angeles and in New York and has been accepted as a contender for an Academy Award in the Documentary Feature category.
I sat down with Lisa Heenan to discuss with her the origins of the project and the messages she wants to communicate through the Polyface story.
Polyfaces provides an upbeat message about sustainable development grounded in a concrete, replicable example. Ultimately the film aims to show that not only can farming help to rebuild the earth, but that it can also help rebuild communities and form new ones, as the story traces the many lives, on and off the farm, who have been impacted by the values and approaches utilized by the Satatin family at Polyface Farms.
The full length trailer for the film can be viewed at www.polyfaces.com.
Felix is the founder and director of Empyrean Research. Based in Tennessee, he travels widely with his work for Empyrean.
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