Conference Framing and Priorities

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In an increasingly unstable and precarious world in which systems of government have yielded to systems of neoliberal governance– without stable jobs, stable climates, stable borders, or clear lines between public and private sectors– it behooves us to reassert our “the right to research” and perhaps go further. We hope, then, to examine radical possibilities, and speculate on what else might be possible, to contest today’s dominant social imaginaries. Activists themselves, alongside scholars, have made urgent calls for critical research that helps laborers, undocumented immigrants, indebted students, and others to revamp campaigns that have traditionally targeted governmental policies— but must now tackle a complex web of decentralized private-public partnerships, multinational corporations, in solidarity with those who are geographically far, but fighting the same struggles. Both activists and scholars have also made repeated calls for access to and ownership of data, to make sure that those who are talked about have the skills and means to talk back, to watch the watchers and to interpret the research themselves.

Inspired by abolition geographies, radical interdisciplinarities and unusual methodological pairings, a commitment to social justice whereby the analytical site is as relevant as theory, and pressing demands and concerns from activists themselves, we hope to highlight and engage critical refusals to accept neoliberal governance, surveillance, and disempowerment as the new normal.

We wish to underscore the ways in which the URBAN Research Network is unique in this conference—grounded in local contexts but national and multi-issue in scope, and multi-disciplinary in our approach. We hope to build upon the crucial conversations on epistemologies and ethics highlighted during URBAN’s first gathering in April 2015, and investigations of deep collaborations between researchers and activists from our second gathering in November 2015. We maintain our commitment to engaging in reflexivity in and on our work, to pay due attention to the ways in which our positions as academics contribute to, shape, and compromise our work with community organizations and social movements.

As such, we would like to focus our resources on providing support for junior scholars engaged in such work, and to engage activists, artists, and community groups into our conversations in sustained ways—co-setting the agenda, troubling our roles, and not merely making cameo appearances.

• Engaging in reflexivity not as a separate, bracketed-off exercise or conversation, but as something that actively shapes and informs all of our work, our understanding of the policy issues we focus on, and especially in addressing aspects (design thinking, data ownership, re-shaping campaigns) that community groups and activists highlight as tensions in their work
• Focusing on supporting scholars of color, junior scholars
• Thinking about a greater range of modes of research, including the arts
• Facilitating small group discussions, while building community across nodes
• Focusing on usable products for practitioners, activists, and everyday citizens as well as scholars
• Inviting activists, artists, designers into our conversations in sustained ways
• Thinking through intersectionalities, but with attention to “this bridge called my back”— the burdens placed on those leading from critical intersections, & at the same time, recognizing the integral roles intersectionalities have played in social movements without romanticizing these roles, surfacing critical bifocalities
• Continuing to reflect on who we are, what we want as URBAN