Review of Etmanski, Hall, & Dawson. Learning and Teaching Community Based Research: Linking Pedagogy to Practice.

Janet Newbury reviews Etmanski, Hall, & Dawson. (Eds.). (2014). Learning and Teaching Community Based Research: Linking Pedagogy to Practice. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

 

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In the foreword of this book, S. Martin Taylor says that its diversity is community based research’s (CBR’s) strength, “but so too is perhaps its weakness.  So varied are the preconceptions, predispositions, goals, and projects of its advocates and adopters that the ensuing landscape of the research may seem to some quite confused and confusing” (p. xiv).

He is right, of course.  I can hardly imagine the task Etmanski, Hall, and Dawson had of curating a volume that would do justice to such a landscape.  Rather than trying to distill the variations down to common themes or ideas, they seemed to approach it by embracing the mess, so to speak, and allowing readers to navigate our own paths, depending on what strands of the entanglement hold meaning for each of us.

Or at least that was my experience of reading Learning and Teaching Community-Based Research: Linking Pedagogy to Practice.  And it was an experience – I would almost go so far as to say a physical one.  I squirmed, felt uncomfortable, and was challenged at many turns.  Not only because I encountered new ideas, but because CBR is so emergent that oftentimes what I read in one chapter would squarely contradict what I had just read in the previous one.  CBR is developed in response to local conditions and in partnership with local participants, so by necessity it looks different in every new instance.  This makes generalizing about it is nearly impossible – so how can we talk about it in a meaningful way?

Getting uncomfortable as an ethical practice

The discomfort I felt as a reader, however, was important.  I have done community-based research and I have taught research methods.  I was desperately excited to read this volume and hear about how to do better at both based on the wisdom of its authors.  The fact that they didn’t offer me such cut and dry answers is what made this book so good: If community-based research is truly community-based, then of course what to do (or what not to do) cannot be taught in a book or a classroom.  That is not to say, however, that the contributing authors didn’t grapple with significant practical and ethical questions that are very relevant and should be attended to by anyone working in communities or on campuses.  They did, and they did so expertly. The challenge is that they didn’t all come to the same conclusions.

Nor did everything I read ring true to me.  But when I felt dissonance, I had to grapple with that too.  Just as when engaged in a community-based research process, there is no walking away just because there are different perspectives.  This book is an invitation for us to read deeply about what informs such a wide range of approaches to CBR.  It is provocative, invites curiosity, encourages us to be willing to be changed, and gives us the language for those ideas to which we feel firmly committed.  Grappling with my own inner responses to the vast range of ideas and practices as I read is what made this book one of my best reads of 2015.

And I would say it is what we all must practice again and again, when working in any context in which we might be confronted with diverse perspectives (in short: everywhere).

CBR as more than research

I am writing as both a researcher and as a community member/instructor active in the field of Child and Youth Care (CYC).  As I read this book I see great relevance of its content for more than research, but for anybody interested in community engagement work, in any capacity.  Though it takes many forms, community-based research is community work.  And regardless of our particular roles (social workers, policy makers, people invested in the non-profit world, etc), if our commitment is to the wellbeing of communities, we are always also working with the cultural, political, economic, and material conditions in which we all live and with which we interact. While community work can be characterized in a lot of different ways, here are a few of the topics explored in this book: intercultural and intergenerational engagement, decolonization, gender dynamics, power relations, self-expression through the arts, civic literacy, community-building, strength-based practice, resistance, social justice, knowledge democracy, and more. 

When I reflect on this list (and it could go on), I am aware that these are also concerns at the forefront for many community-based and service-oriented organizations at the moment due to the complex times in which we are living.  Recognizing that how children are raised is political, deconstructing artificial barriers between theory and practice, and getting out of unnecessarily competitive disciplinary silos – I believe – will deeply enhance our ability to face these vitally important issues as engaged citizens, extending beyond our roles as researchers.

Indeed, this book models such an interdisciplinary approach by not limiting its focus in terms of demographics or special interests.  Instead it presumes that none of us – readers, researchers, authors, or participants – are singular in any way.  For instance, in a chapter entitled When girls talk back: Learning through doing critical, girl-centred participatory action research, the authors are an intergenerational group who beautifully articulate their experiences of participating in, facilitating, and writing about a reflexive group participatory action research process.  Similarly, in their chapter, Siem Smun’eem (Respected Children): A Community-Based Research Training Story, Mukwa Musayett, de Finney, Kundouqk, Brown, and McCaffrey state that their “collaborative approach ensures community contribution to the content as well as to the process of the training” (p. 96).  We all hold multiple positions at any given time and over the course of our lives.  These and other authors in this volume demonstrate that community-based research not only allows for that; it is built on the premise that the researcher/practitioner can’t be separated from community life. 

As I read this volume, it became clear to me that CBR’s commitments to collaboration and emergence can strongly support all practices with children, youth, families and communities to become more democratic. 

Being in the midst

Recognizing we are part of a much larger movement (full of diversity and incommensurability) helps me see the relevance of every small interaction as a significant contribution to these much bigger efforts.  Disciplinary and other distinctions can be useful when it comes to articulating what we do, but I believe the lack of distinctions can be useful when it comes to actually doing it

This is why I commend Etmanski, Hall, and Dawson for not getting too worried about how to categorize the various ideas presented in their book.  In their introduction, they present a table listing 28 terms and traditions associated with CBR!  Rather than getting mired in these distinctions, they then move on to the meat of the book, which is the complexities of putting CBR into practice in various contexts through meaningful citizen engagement. 

This is not to say that language doesn’t matter; it does.  But the editors state up front their firm desire “to move a few steps closer to cognitive justice within the academy” (p. 17).  Sometimes in order to do that we need to recognize that obsessing over distinctions can actually drive wedges between otherwise compatible ideas and practices and keep us from entering the flow of what is actually happening.  How might we let ourselves be ‘in the midst’ of a process that is already, and always, underway?  A process that is neither outcome-oriented nor pre-defined? 

I love this notion of cognitive justice, and I think researchers, service providers, educators, and policy makers can all benefit from reflecting on this concept and how it is enacted in the chapters of Etmanski, Hall, and Dawson’s book.  Being ‘in the midst’ is uncomfortable, but it really is all we have.  This book gave me the opportunity to experience that as I read, and reflect on what it means for me moving forward, alongside others.

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