Resistant voices help us imagine alternatives. Reflecting with Timothy Pyrch

Timothy Pyrch is professor emeritus of the University of Calgary, Canada. He helped organize action researchers from around the world at the first academic congress in 1989. His work preserves indigenous ways of knowing the world, emphasizing story-telling.

Timothy Pyrch
Timothy Pyrch

Timothy explains that in this time of social-ecological transition, we need insights that can disrupt the dominant narratives.

Hilary: Timothy, pleasure to meet you. You retired a decade or so ago from the field of adult education. I am curious about your reflections on the development of action research over the years. How you see things unfolding. What if we start with an important conference you organized back in 1989. Can you share more about your context then?

Timothy: I was in my late 40’s with a lot of experience outside of the academy and was politically aware. I was not worried too much about tenure. One of the first things I discovered was there was something special about action research. We were interested in what participatory action research was all about. The terminology varies and so we took it upon ourselves with some dollars from the federal government to invite others to a conference in July of 1989. Conference title was ‘Participatory research: A celebration of people’s knowledge’.

Hilary How did you figure out who might come?

Timothy What I brought to the table was an understanding of the history of adult education. I knew about Highlander in Tennessee, Labor research at Leeds, Mexican activists in Cuernavaca, Indigenous voices in Canada, and others. We also asked around. I phoned Orlando Fals Borda and asked if he might find it interesting. Orlando said, yes, I’ll come. We brought 300 people from around the world, with their stories and truth, including 2 Aboriginal women from Australia. I also asked Orlando, instead of lecturing to us, would you please listen for three days and at the end of the three days tell us what you heard. His summary was a passionate call to action – political action. He later told us we were the first University to host such a conference.

Hilary: Yay. How did the Cartagena meeting of action researchers in 1977 fit in?

Timothy: Ours was the first university to host an action research conference. We were blessed with a kind of innocence, with a bit of courage and quite a few dollars. We created an event which connected many people in the world from then on.

Hilary: in retrospect what would you say was most important?

Timothy: At that time, to talk about Australian aboriginal ways of knowing with people who had to venture so far north. It was mind boggling. They had to leave home to feel safe enough to be able to speak. The two women shared a story that was an amazing experience for most of us. It was especially enriching when you think about the average conference back then.

Hilary: This helped start off a 30-year journey, still ongoing of working with and including voices of people often made marginal.

Timothy: I spent a good part of the next years meeting so many wonderful people internationally. Hearing people’s knowledge and knowing they don’t feel safe normally sharing it. The downside is that I neglected my own backyard and felt quite alone at home.

Hilary: Your career as an academic was devoted to adult education, and a different kind of inquiry, informed by the global south and the voices of indigenous people. The insights of someone such as Orlando, were key, I’d imagine. What did you feel during your career was the heart and soul, if you will, of Participatory Action Research. What needed to be highlighted?

Timothy: What I call knowledge-making involves a whole person. For me, I never was confident contributing to academic writing. You need support to help speak your mind. I survived because at a university writing is a price to be paid. You need nerves, and a certain political shrewdness. To that end, I had to prepare the ground of support which the congress helped me do.

Hilary: Thank you for that work. Let me ask you to look back as best you can over the action research decades, for example to what’s contained in the Handbooks of Action Research, and in the Action Research journal. What are you seeing that you like? What is missing?

Timothy: We hear more voices now but also we find more and more ways to silence them. It seems if you don’t have the exact same color or race or gender it’s harder to speak about what you know. When I worked with Indigenous people, I seldom spoke publicly. I felt silenced by circumstances. I stumbled a lot. We can be well intentioned, but also face many obstacles to free expression.

Hilary: Is it different in the action research space today compared to when you started out?

Timothy: There is still hesitancy to speak without words, taking more risk to include a photo or generally to include the arts. I can remember not too long ago when reviewing an article for a journal, I asked an author: why don’t you place one of the photographs from your work? Instead of an entire page of words, an image might work. And I was delighted with myself to encourage that. It did work.

Hilary: You were encouraging what Heron & Reason call extended epistemologies. We do see a lot of emphasis on that now. I notice that too in my role with the journal of Action Research. And it goes beyond photographs. I’m also seeing action researchers use of theater. Otto Scharmer’s work with Social Presencing Theatre. Catherine Etmanski of Royal Roads, one your fellow Canadians, introduced me to Living Theater. That’s David Diamond’s work developed from Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed. Not just Brazilians or poor people are oppressed. Perhaps its popularity speaks to our need to get at more elusive elements of knowledge creation. Or more simply it allows us to connect to one another and the larger ecology without too much rationalist reductionism. It’s interesting to see it emerge.

Let’s turn to close our conversation, Timothy. What is your aspiration regarding indigenous knowledge that is more artful? And maybe your own efforts these days? It seems the action researchers I know don’t actually retires. Some feel liberated to do more interesting work!

Timothy: To listen better is the key. No matter how clever we think we are, listening is hard work. And listening to the past creates historical awareness. The absence of historical inquiry is a real problem.

Let me say one quick thing about what you’re doing at AR+ with the voices that you’re gathering from the Basque Country. I’m very interested in this because I wonder if the several voices will include their tradition of resistance. They just had an election in Spain and it’s still alive. Their resistance is coming to life again.

Hilary: I believe you’re referring to Miren Larrea who is leading this work on territorial development with her institute in the Basque country. We’ve been meeting to talk about her personal experience, with a view to both understanding and practicing how personal, first person stories inform and enrich interpersonal work, as well as the more impersonal policy making aspects that come out of it. It’s an example of a conversation about knowledge creation and how it touches on people’s lived experience which can make available more radical – to the roots – forms of inquiry and or radical practice.

Timothy: Going back to John Heron’s ways of knowing. Experiential knowing and propositional knowing came first. And then after a few years, he and Peter Reason discovered the importance of presentational knowing.

Hilary: Action research has been evolving. What is your advice to the next generation of action researchers?

Timothy: To be confident enough to take the risk of exposing your own inadequacies and engage in an open circle of inquiry. Orlando told me that PAR researchers must give up something before they can take. Also, engaging directly in their community

Hilary: I’m assuming you agree we find ourselves at a time of tremendous social and ecological transition. We’re leaving, some quite reluctantly, the modern industrial consumerist model. What’s your sense of what action research offers in this transition?

Timothy: I think our work must be more disruptive. We learn this if we go back to the 17th century revolutions. And so, the importance of indigenous voices or voices that have been made marginal. It’s their insight that will disrupt the dominant narratives. Resistant voices help us imagine alternatives to what we currently have. The indigenous, the women, the minorities, all those who didn’t play a leadership role in the dominant paradigm may indeed have the seeds of a new paradigm. So we must listen deeply while we cultivate the new ground. I tell this story in ‘Strangers no more’.

Hilary: I hope others will read your essay. Thank you for taking the time Timothy!