PAR social change in Santiago, Chile. Welcome to Dr. Lake Sagaris.

Lake Sagaris leads PAR Transportation in Santiago, Chile

Dr. Lake Sagaris co-leads a social change lab in Santiago Chile – Laboratorio de Cambio Social, PAR – Participative Action Research – is at the heart of their work to build collaboration between university and urban community. The lab’s action research projects emphasize civic culture, mobility and sustainable urban development. Recently Lake’s lab joined our AR+ community as a stewarding organization. We share a recent conversation on how we might “accomplish more together.”

Hilary: It’s a delight to see you again Lake. I last saw you in November in Santiago, during the Transformations 2019 conference. That was a time of social change with over a million people coming out to protest on the streets. It was a bit scary too.

Having your advice and also your book helped me. Thank you again. Your book, about the Pinochet regime, was a guide to the larger historical-social context of the tear gas we were experiencing that weekend in November. So well written too. I understand you were a journalist starting out.

Today I hope we’ll talk more about your social change lab. Thank you for making the time. Let’s start with a nice simple, personal question. How is your past and current life coming together in this time of social transformation?

Lake: It’s a big experiment. Life is probably the biggest experiment we ever have. My own story really tells you a lot about Chile too. Because under the Pinochet military regime, social sciences were closed down. Engineering was highlighted and reified. A lot of disciplines that you’d consider arts and science are here forms of engineering, e.g., economics is economic engineering. That worked reasonably well under the military regime, which was very rigid. But less so now as we move back into a more normal social space of debates and conversations. In our social change lab we focus on transportation which is a key issue in society. From 1990 on, when the regime ended, transportation started to hit one barrier after another. Engineers really only had their rational technical models. Which are neither rational nor technical! But these were creating a lot of trouble with transportation and hence the openness to the PAR perspective that I bring.

In 2007, what was supposed to be a wonderful new transportation system for Santiago, almost brought down the government and brought down the transport minister. That’s worth noting. A city transport system can bring down the national ministry of transport and remove the minister of transport.

And that’s when I came along. I’d been learning urbanism and planning as a citizen fighting a highway project. That was my path to getting engaged in transport issues. And also my PhD.

Transportation is really special. It’s not just another discipline like say health or housing. It’s more like water. Once you step outside your door in the morning you step into the transport system. How that transport system treats you reflects your position in society, your age, your gender, your ethnicity, all of which means that it can be a lightning rod for a lot of what’s happening in society.

Hilary: What happens in your social change lab. I am curious how do you get transportation engineers to embrace some of the issues say related to power and position.

Lake: We created our laboratory for social change in 2013. I expected somebody to say “social change are you kidding? You can’t have a lab for social change!” But nobody said it. So here we are. It’s a space of joys and frustrations. The frustrations because it’s been very hard to develop collaborations with other professors and researchers in transport engineering. I don’t get invited to their conversations, say on fare evasion. So that’s frustrating.

But on the other hand, I have students and some of those students have come up to be researchers and now they’re doing doctorates. And these collaborations have been amazing. I see that there’s a current generation of engineers who had some social concern and so approached me and have tried to engage with me as best they can and, and we have done a lot together. Really it’s the younger ones who come with a sensibility as well as the really brilliant transport, engineering, modeling, mathematics, and other skills they bring to understanding the world. That has really led to new spaces. We’ve done it with par, participatory action research, there’s a lot of different ways.

Hilary: What is it about PAR that highlights the engineering versus social change perspective?

Lake: We work often by  inventing an intervention and testing it with a community and then creating a community of learning around a school or around a women’s center or between the school and the women’s center, whatever. Another strategy we’ve used is to do a transport balance sheet. There’s all these bike balances or bike city rankings around the world and there’s also a system that was invented for evaluating life in Latin American cities. And so we said, well, could we do a transport justice balance sheet and what would that look like? And so we took a lot of existing research and we did our own additional research within a par framework. I can’t imagine how we would ever have brought together so many different kinds of researchers and research without a PAR framework. We  brought in community leaders, because we wanted our research to speak to community leaders and their suffering, issues, frustrations and aspirations to become a part somehow of the research agenda.

Hilary:  What difference does PAR, Participative Action Research, make in your work?  

Lake: PAR is ideal. One of the benefits that maybe is not talked about so much in the PAR literature is that it really allowed us to respect people for who they were, who they are and what they are. So to value engineers as engineers. They didn’t have to become a pseudo anthropologist or a wonderful facilitator. We did that ourselves with my research team. They could be an engineer but they could be an engineer that was being invited and pushed to grow in empathy and to grow in understanding and wow. I mean it’s always, some people are more central and some people come in and out from the periphery of this kind of research, but the five or six or eight of us or whatever, depending how you count it, who were at the center really benefited from this approach.

Particularly the three of us who’ve been writing articles about it since. It’s amazing how much they’ve grown. My colleagues, one’s an architect and one’s an engineer, but also how much I’ve grown. Cause you know, the whole, the whole war between social sciences and engineering, the hard versus the soft, went out the window. No relevance. I love what they can do with their methods and I think they love what, I can do with my methods and what the anthropologists or the geographers are doing with their methods. So it created a very easy going framework that allowed people to be who they are but to grow from there.

Hilary: Your PAR work builds in transdisciplinarity. I think that is useful to highlight for our transdisciplinary colleagues. It seems that PAR allows you bring a lens of say, power or social inequality to issues such as fare evasion while working with experts and a larger set of stakeholders, right?

Lake: Yes. Because it’s complex. For example. fare evasion in Chile is around 30- 35%. It’s obviously a social issue that needs to be addressed with a social perspective and with social socially mobilizing methods. It’s not a simple engineering issue.

My research with, with some of my colleagues in transport engineering and other areas shows very clearly that there’s a very significant proportion of the population – about 20% – who are having to choose between feeding their family and paying the Santiago transport fares. So, obviously you cannot treat a problem, a social problem like that as if it was just somebody being naughty. So the first response of the “engineering” system was to repress, to threaten, e.g., to put people’s faces on the sides of buses as if they were criminals to criminalize an evasion. And then the next, there’s been more efforts, more studies, but I would say that they haven’t got anywhere. And the recent social explosion is part of this. It was triggered by Metro fare price hikes.

I don’t know if I can say it’s my failure, but I’ve tried, I feel like I’ve knocked on the doors and banged on the windows and said, Hey, let me in, you know, I could help you with this.
And I haven’t been let in with this PAR approach to deal with fares. Yet.

Hilary I find myself reminding folks who show up around AR+ that we are seeking to shift millennium old feudal systems. They won’t simply go quietly into the night. We have to overcome our own indoctrination and then learn new ways of co-creating. It is not your fault or our fault. Or indeed anyone’s fault. We’ve inherited these huge scary systems. And now we need to transition together from the old ways to a new more creative world. Yikes!

Lake: This explosion of social conflicts and movements have opened some doors and made people a lot more flexible than they were. And at the same time, people are also more afraid, which tends to make them more rigid. So it’s a bit of a tie. But I think that if there’s one thing about the best among the colleagues that I have the pleasure of working with and the honor of working with is that they’re stubborn. We go ahead and make mistakes, but when they do, then they do realize they’ve made mistakes and look for help. And they’re kind of surprised when you say, well, yeah, that was obviously a mistake because, you know, we’ve learned about this in the social sciences and it would be useful to you, but that’s very much an ongoing dialogue.

Hilary: Your emphasis on dialogue and collaboration and learning together feels really rather different than the old way of doing PAR, at least as I understand it. In Latin America there are roots in Marxist thinking that was pretty “us against them.” Do you have a sense that there’s more openness to “getting along together” type work that affects all of us? Is there is a next generation? What’s your optimistic vision for a shared future?

Lake: Yeah,  here I think there’s a really important thing about generational thinking or generational constructs of reality. The old may be wise or the young seen as innovative. And, to my generation, the grandmother generation, we lived through a period of huge social conflict and that formed us and shaped us. And we are very much more flexible thinkers and actors, at least those of us who really were involved in it in some way.

So we connect very well with these new generations who are grappling. They’re basically grappling with the things we didn’t resolve. Our movements and our generation achieved a lot, whether in North America or Europe or Latin America. But we have a lot of failures to our names, a lot of things that haven’t got done. And that’s what this generation has inherited and is very much saying, okay, we’re not going to live with this for the rest of our lives. This changes, this changes. This has to change now because this is a very complicated century that’s coming down on us very quickly. We have very little time and we need to build tools now. If we don’t respond to this now we’re going to fall apart very shortly.

Hilary: One of the things that has attracted me most about your work is the way you emphasize a groundedness in space, and place. A locality. Your traffic calming work for example. When I hear you describe it I also see how it’s a way to engage with people who might hold rather right wing political ideology. But when met with a grounded and pragmatist point of view, you’re able to do this work together. what might we accomplish together that is both grounded and also about local/global connection as you bring your community to connect with us inside AR+?

Lake: Wow. Well, it’s a big question. I would say that it’s incredibly productive when the North and the South dialogue in conditions of equality because actually we have so many similar problems. Latin America is a factory of innovation and creativity and, in cities, a lot of the new ideas, such as car-free Sundays for example, which are now being done in Los Angeles and hundreds of cities worldwide, started in Bogota 40 years ago.

Hilary: I believe the naked bike rides – they are very popular in Portland which has a terrific bike infrastructure – started in Brazil. Thank you Brazil. Well um maybe thank you, it’s not always a pleasing sight. But always joyful when thousands of naked cyclists take over the streets for a night!

Lake. Out of these kinds of shared inquiries and practices can come creative and major solutions. These are key in PAR or other forms of action research. That’s one of the exciting things about it. And so again, I think this dialogue is going to be very useful and I think in concrete terms, yeah.
Transportation really matters. And yet when the social movements explode or erupt onto the scene or into people’s consciousness, it takes a long time to form them, they don’t just suddenly appear and disappear. It’s a long process. They’re within that process, there’s this, this connection with reality that gets lost and yet keeps flashing up between the lines and this space, this local space, this territorial space, these micro spaces. There’s an attitude when we look at global warming or whatever that we’re saying, Oh, we have to solve this at the planetary level. It’s a planetary problem and if we solve it in the large systems, then the small systems will just follow along. And to me what we’re seeing is a dissonance. The small systems aren’t just following along: this is the wonderful thing about geography, its gift to the world, understanding scale. The micro scale, it’s not smaller, it’s as big as the macro scale, but it has a different structure: like the roots of a tree.

The most visible part of the tree is the Copa, the top of the tree, then the branches and leaves. But then there’s the roots. When we think like this, what comes into focus is the importance of what are we doing about the meso scale, the middle, the intermediate.

Hilary: The ways and hows in which we connect?

Lake: Complexity has this idea of nested scales in which scales are all connected, but we’re not looking at the world this way. We’re not doing the work simultaneously and working on the connections. And again, to me it seems obvious that action research or participatory action research that brings people in and makes them an essential part of that method and the power structures and the imagination and the creativity that gets mobilized and the emotions and the commitment along with the rational and the technical: that that’s where we really are going to have a much better grasp of how to deal with the challenges of the 21st century.

Hilary: Thank you for this emphasis on connecting the parts. We look forward to connecting various groups of people like you who have this whole systems, whole person approach and so much wisdom that comes from your experience over the years. How can we not accomplish something quite, quite innovative together at this time where transportation is literally just on our own desktop, which allows space travel between Portland and Santiago. A wild opportunity we didn’t have just a few years ago.

Isn’t the Women’s day March happening this Sunday. I think it’s up to women and children to lead us to a new world order? What do you think?

Lake: We hope it’ll be a big one and a peaceful one. And that’ll help to move things ahead. Yes. [Note: In fact, almost 2 million women participated, in a city of 6.5 million people]

Hilary: At AR+ we had our first global Gathering last year on Women’s day. We had two Nobel laureates who served on the IPCC, Dr. Karen O’Brien and Coleen Vogel. Each wringing her hands over how unproductive the conversation about climate change is. And essentially underscoring what we are saying – yes, the work needs transformative and hugely engaging of real human beings! And we better go together.

Thank you for your work Lake. Welcome to AR+.

Lake: Thank you.