How to research communities? Become one first.
The thoughts recorded below were put together based on reflections from a recent Action Learning group work project at the second RECOMS training event in Coventry, UK. During the project, our group of 15 Early Stage Researchers (ESRs) discovered that action learning is not only ‘learning to research’; it is, perhaps more importantly, learning about ourselves and from each other. Based on a combination of thoughts from one group’s reflective writing practice about the action learning experience, this blog post highlights insights and concerns that we as a group uncovered. The post is guided by questions that we all reflected on: How do individuals and communities respond to socio-ecological challenges? How can thinking in terms of communities make socio-ecological challenges less distant? And finally, how can we communicate our ideas and research in a tangible way that brings people in?
Searching for solutions
How do individuals and communities respond to socio-ecological challenges?
As RECOMS ESRs, we are tasked with developing an expertise for “tackling socio-ecological challenges”, including the transformation of environments “for the health and well-being of vulnerable communities”. Yikes. That can seem a bit overwhelming. In today’s fast-paced world, we are confronted with a constant flow of information about the dire and global nature of such socio-ecological challenges on a daily basis. There are only twelve years remaining to limit global climate change in a serious way. The global rate of biodiversity loss could contribute to our own extinction. This leaves many thinking: what can we as individuals or members of communities do?
As a society, our solutions to the above-mentioned global challenges in recent decades have been distant from our everyday lives. Sure, as individuals we may change our consumption patterns by limiting our ‘ecological footprint’. We may eat less meat, or drive an electric car. However, even these personal actions are still directed at affecting a marketplace which we tend to see as distant: globalized, and largely beyond our control. In this way, distant solutions show little reflection on the ways we live our everyday lives: our goals - the things that drive us - and our values - the principles that define ourselves, our communities, and our markets.
For some of us, the lack of urgency in distant solutions is more than overwhelming. It can be paralyzing for daily life; leaving some to sigh in nihilistic despair and become increasingly disengaged. The recent rise of ‘School Strikes for the Climate’ seem to echo this feeling of paralysis perfectly, as school children like 16-year-old Greta Thunberg issue a ‘pulse check’ to our society and its leaders:
Why should I be studying for a future that soon may be no more, when no one is doing anything to save that future?
And what is the point of learning facts when the most important facts clearly mean nothing to our society?
As ESRs working with communities, many of us came to this action learning project having gone through similar frustrations: What can we do to contribute to solutions to these problems that seem so out of reach?
Communities of Becoming
How can thinking in terms of communities make socio-ecological challenges less distant?
In the face of these grave and seemingly distant challenges, it may help to recall the piercing words of the late philosopher, Val Plumwood, who in 2007 when reflecting on the ongoing ecological crisis, wrote:
We will go onwards in a different mode of humanity, or not at all.
In short, Plumwood’s appeal for “a different mode of humanity” sees the need for us as individuals to enter into different relationships: with ourselves, with our neighbors and with the natural world. Rather than asking small questions about distant things - like how our individual shopping choices can change a global marketplace, or how few percentage points can be taken off of global emissions year to year - Plumwood’s challenge can be seen as reflecting on big questions about personal things.
Now, this does not mean that questions of shopping choices, or emission reduction are unimportant. It means they are, alone, not sufficient. It means, confronted with existential challenges, we (as individuals and communities) must also be asking: How should we live? Who are we? What do we value? How do we want to live with each other? The phrase “communities of becoming” underscores the need for us to reflect on big questions about personal things, and the ways in which we can enter into new modes of humanity that respond and adapt to the challenges we face. In short, communities of becoming means undergoing transformation together.
As we ask these big questions about personal things, we may soon realize that as individuals we all belong to several communities that we depend upon. It is clear that we rely on the people in our neighborhoods to keep the streets tidy, or fellow taxpayers to contribute to funding our fire departments. But in the same way, we rely on people across the world to produce goods for trade, and to do their part to keep our oceans and atmosphere free of pollution. We rely on forests to regulate the carbon cycle and bees to pollinate our crops. The list goes on. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.
It is through asking these big questions, that we see how community is a central part of searching for solutions. Communities aren’t just local. They aren’t even just human! “Communities can,” as geographer J.K. Gibson-Graham tells us, “be constituted around difference, across places, with openness to otherness as a central logic”.
Now, that all sounds great! … but how can we ground it in something that makes sense?
Becoming a community
How can we communicate our ideas and research in a way that brings people in?
If above seems abstract, it’s because, well, maybe it is. As academics we are sometimes rightfully accused of using language that is overblown, or shorthand that most people don’t understand. The truth is, most people do not spend their days thinking and reading; but doing and enterprising.
How can we pick our audience up where they are at?
Therefore, if we want to not only find solutions to complex problems, but change the way people think about or approach finding solutions, we need to develop better communication techniques. This was a crucial takeaway for our group. It was also an important part of our action learning project, in which we worked on creating an impact and engagement strategy for the Coventry Food Charter.
Coventry is a city plagued by food poverty. The Food Charter aims, therefore, to first, eliminate hunger in Coventry, and second, develop sustainable and just food policies for the city. After taking a look at the Food Charter’s main image (see below), we felt that in its current form, the Charter was too overwhelming and abstract for people who have not thought about these issues before. Therefore, the idea of picking people up where they are at - became a central to our task. How could we extend our reach and build communities beyond the ivory tower of academia?
The image of a fruit-bearing tree and the Charter’s strong principles gave us a great place to start. Carrying on the tree metaphor, we decided that there couldn’t just be one ‘stand alone tree’, our communication strategy needed to think about facilitating an ecological system to support the tree - which was in its current state, a fixed and lofty ideal. We felt that it is not possible for everyone to immediately reach the level of the large trees, the ‘seeds of re-politicization’ must rather first be planted and nurtured to grow.
We used the metaphor of forest ecology to inspire a strategy for the stakeholders to ‘translate’ the Charter in ways that are tangible, accessible, and relevant to a wide audience. This is done through the ‘worker bees’, who work to cross-pollinate the ideas and principles found in the overarching ‘umbrella’ (or emergent layer) of the Food Charter to other layers of the forest. The ‘bees’ we suggested included already existing community groups, students, charity organizations - the point was for the engagement strategy to frame ways in which all groups had an interest in being under the Food Charter’s umbrella.
The umbrella, as such, serves as the ideal under which all the other layers of the community will require more time - and cross-pollination - to grow. The work of cross-pollinating ideas and principles done by the bees results in new seeds being planted, and new fruits growing. In concrete terms, this means that ‘the bees’ need to go out into the community and engage ordinary people in discussion, and create tailored and specific plans for how institutions could support the charter and what their incentives for joining in would be.
Stacked images to the right: (Top) the Coventry Food Charter’s tree. (Below) My own visualization of the tree metaphor, and the tension between the idealism underpinning the Food Charter and a pragmatism in ‘picking people up where they are at.
In the end, our action learning project didn’t only teach us how to research or communicate - it helped us to grow as a RECOMS community. Becoming a community is not an easy process. It requires patience and negotiation; effort and care. We learned that working with and growing communities of becoming requires first becoming a community. This means inspiring ourselves and others to ask big questions about personal things and picking each other up where we are at.