Just Research workshop series vol II. Learnings and Takeaways

Facilitators: Anita Cheng, Aurash Khawarzad, and Jaime Jover.

Participants: Elizabeth Cooper, Bianca Mona, Silvia Rivera Alfaro, Anushay Said, and Joseph Torres-González.

Our second iteration of the Just Research Workshop—following last year’s generative and provocative first series of workshops—brought together nine research-activists across CUNY campuses working on a wide range of community-based topics from the Arts, Anthropology, Environmental Psychology, Indigenous Studies, Geography, and Women Studies. During the four sessions over the spring 2022 semester, we worked to create a safe, horizontal environment where participants felt confident to share their views, grappling with tensions and contradictions in community-based research, grounded in specific research, creative, and pedagogical projects that we are not usually paid to tend to. We highlight here our takeaways on key, grounding concepts from our experiences together.

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Community and power: we work with and for community development and justice. In many ways, our commitment to “communities” can be taken for granted. Indeed, we discussed how community-based research, social practice art, etc. appear to be “hot” in academic and art worlds, but how we still lack understanding of how implement and actually realize this in substantive ways. For instance, we need to define the community we work with, so how and where do we set the boundaries? Sometimes it is clear-cut because of sociological or geographic reasons, but it also happens that it is difficult to define who belongs to a community and who does not. How does the process of self-identification work? Who commands it? This kind of conversation relates to power relations: as in every group, there are always people who hold power. As engaged scholars, especially with disadvantaged or people in need, we must distinguish who is who. As important as fighting for a community is to be aware of potential inequalities within the community.

Justice and democracy: activist-informed research is about justice in one way or another, but it is not simple to explain. We examined different conceptualizations of justice, especially as linked to honesty and equality, and also to community and democracy. But, who defines these conceptualizations? When does democratic validity lead to justice? One problem comes back to the previous point, i.e., who holds power within a community, a society? Suppose those claiming justice are not represented in the system. In that case, if they are not successful, they could rarely identify themselves with that system, and it should not surprise us if they position themselves outside of it, as non-belonging. Or in other words, if democracy does not comprise its full extension, meaning power does not reside on the people, and those on top are not accountable, it is only logical to think that some people on the bottom, the oppressed and side-lined, disassociate. In those cases, justice does not serve honesty and equality; instead, it becomes a tool against part of the community, fostering non-democratic practices like segregation and alienation. A key takeaway was the necessity to reframe justice as a crucial concept in any social formation vis-à-vis democracy, especially concerning the process by which the latter unfolds.

Reform and academia: reframing justice calls for a reformist agenda. We thought about the process, strengths, and challenges of reframing justice within current political institutions, and how most are interwoven with or embedded in notions of the Western nation-state. Reforms can be implemented at other scales of politic-economic power and outside the West, as decolonial and postcolonial theory and practice shows, in Bolivia or Chile as recent examples. Nevertheless, we wondered: do we believe in reform? Going back to the act of research, questions about positionality arose here because, as academics, we are part of institutions and within the system. Is it possible to work within a system that we do not entirely agree with and that is often unjust and unequal (to us, and especially to the communities we work with)? Are we legitimizing the system by doing so? We did not reach any consensus beyond the importance of self-awareness, uneven relations of power, and the necessity to implement community-based research methodologies that give voice to the communities in setting their agendas and goals.

Resistance: to achieve more just and equal societies we need plans that encompass both direct actions and softer reforms. How does that translate into daily practices? What does resistance look like? The communities we work with keep reframing their strategies and tactics, adjusting to their (also evolving) goals. In our discussions, it seemed helpful to distinguish the everyday emancipatory strategies we have observed as being used by BIPOC communities in the US, from the long-term, repertoires of resistance and alternative institution-building, for example, by the Zapatistas in Chiapas. Again, we could not reach a general conclusion beyond the diversities and richness of every struggle, our necessity as researchers to plug into them by active listening, putting their interest in front instead of ours.

When combined, our most fundamental learning is that our definitions of justice, democracy, and community are linked, and that many global, institutional, and personal transitions can be re-defined, re-contextualized, and understood in endless ways. These definitions are constantly changing. Thus, we must be aware of these ongoing processes and understand that the ways to research them are not fixed, but evolve together with the struggles. Through our academic activity, we are not only helping the community but also transforming their reality, for example, the ways in which they see themselves. That is to say: we need to be mindful of our impacts as academics, striving to reduce these while co-producing knowledge (theoretical and empirical) that helps the goals of the people we serve. Because it is ultimately them and the public good more broadly, and not our institutions, the reasons why we carry out research in the first place. Overall, the workshop was a helpful opportunity to share personal and professional experiences as engaged scholars, reflect on the principles that drive our activity as scholars and activists, engage in conversations about research methods, ethics, and practices, and exchange information to keep our ambitions alive for social change.