Waking Synergy Between City and University: Dialogue with Petra Schweizer-Ries

Hilary:  Hello Prof. Petra Schweizer-Ries! I was happy to learn that you are involved with action oriented transformative research from a sustainability science perspective. And even more so to learn that in your position at Bochum U. of Applied Sciences you’re quite entrepreneurial in linking your students with the city’s needs around sustainability. I’d love to hear more. I ask in the context of preparing for the AR+ Transformations Gathering in March 2019. which I hope will convene like-hearted people like yourself.  We hope to organize with a bit more of a sense of being a global community.  With that by way of the big picture, may I start by asking more about your background and what is holding  your attention these days?

Petra:  I’m an environmental psychologist by training. I was educated very much in the natural science tradition of experimenting but with objectivity. I have since become a sustainability scientist. I am more open now to doing what we call transformative research. And being involved much more with those stakeholders involved. So it is now very important for me to find like-minded and like-hearted people who do this kind of research, and teaching. We are connecting now since I changed how I teach. I make the learning processes more participative, more interactive. Last autumn I took the u.lab course of Otto Scharmer.

Hilary The U-Lab is extraordinary successful in gathering people. It’s been beautiful to see it grow. With AR +, which is so much smaller, we’re about gathering leaders of social learning communities e.g., at university level and in more grassroots work. We’re looking to bring organizational entities, and their leadership, into a community organizing process. Like Otto’s work it’s all branches on the tree of action oriented research and whole person learning. I am curious to learn a little bit more about your own journey to being involved more with sustainability stakeholders.

Petra: When I was an environmental psychologist I always had to swear that I am not an activist. Be neutral or you’re not a good scientist was the rule. That was very hard for me. Now I feel like a scholar-activist, both. When I became a sustainability science professor, I have the full rights to follow my targets and I make them fully transparent. My sustainability targets. Still and also at my university, a lot of people are working in the old way or in the traditional way. I don’t have a lot of colleagues like this in my university.

Hilary: Welcome to the action research tribe! I like to say we work in the sour spot. The spot where scholars learn to be more engaged and where activists learn to reflect and distill their own insights. It may sound sour, but it’s also a sweet space for action researchers. By the way I tend to say “conventional” not “traditional,” research when we speak of the insistence on objectivity. Not least because I think doing action research is a post-conventional approach. We don’t pretend to be objective. We know we are partial and and so we grapple more with transparency and reflexivity. That requires a step into multiple perspectives and complexity.  That’s hard for the “black and white,” “what’s the right answer,” mindset of positivism.

Petra: I am so happy to find people out there in the world who have the same ideas as me, and who do work in a very good and robust way. Sometimes I doubted myself. I need collaborators. I cannot do it alone. I want to change our university, our city, our region.

Hilary: Literally, we can’t do it alone. And I think also psychologically we need to empower each other. Many action researchers harbor too much self doubt. Part of our community organizing work, I think, is encourage us to grow ourselves internally too.

Petra: We’ve developed an inner transition training for Universities. And we have contact with the transition town movement. We’re working also with our own experience at the university by investigating ecological metrics and doing interviews. Now we have a transition team opened up for others to join. Suddenly people are approaching me and saying, we want to bring in ideas too. So it’s really growing.

Hilary: Congratulations! Nice evidence that you’re doing the right thing. So let me pose a controversial question, about the role of the university. I have been an academic for years and also familiar with the German system where I studied philosophy. Um, let’s say the word patriarchy comes to mind as a good description of what I experienced! Some say to me universities are simply a lost cause, that they’re like a pre-revolutionary monarchy. And yet universities have tremendous resources that have yet to be put to real use in our sustainability crisis. What is your own view about this and your own sense of what’s possible for let’s say liberating transformations oriented faculty members?

Petra:  I see movement. More and more people are re-thinking in this liberation direction. Even the executives  in our universities. They know it can’t be the old mission, the old science. You know we had a meeting on mindfulness for universities in Thüringen where Universities of Applied Sciences in Germany came together.

Hilary:  Impressive! Share with me please a recent example of what you’re proud of, what liberation looks like?

Petra: I’m doing research with my students and it impacts the city of Bochum itself. It’s not always so easy for the students because they don’t know this mode of being equal and participating with the professor and stakeholders in the research. We integrate different knowledge forms. First we have empirical science where we take data on some aspect of the city’s sustainability . Then I teach sustainability science and the last semester I’m teaching participation and governance. This is where they prepare an application project for themselves, but they also do it for the city. So for our city recently, for example, we had three “future search [Zukunftswerkstatt]” workshops. Citizen people came and really liked the atmosphere. Although in the end we could not reach any action.

Hilary: How did you create that relationship with the city. How does it work?

Petra: In our town planning service process they pick a town quarter that is not well developed and we are involved in one of them now.

Hilary: I’m curious how did you create that relationship with the mayor’s staff? I ask because I remember work with the Port of Los Angeles that was a bit similar to this.  I found the process with the mayor’s office was the most time consuming. He was a green mayor.  Thankfully it worked well.

Petra I sent some informal signals that I would be willing to work with my students and they contacted me. We needed two years to organize and design our agreement. We call it a cooperation agreement. We didn’t wait to have it signed, we started. We’ll sign it soon actually.

Hilary: I bet people can learn from your cooperation agreement process. And it’d be interesting to see how it would be redesigned in say Manila, The Philippines, or in Puerto Rico or in Canada? We like images of what’s possible and models to share in AR+. So I want to ask – would it be of interest to you to come to our Chalmers Gathering and learn from peers?

Petra: Yes. I was already reading about this and what I was reading attracted me very much. Frankly it’s a gift. As long as we don’t have to hear uni-directional presentations and parallel sessions where people talk about participation but don’t do it.

Hilary:  It’s absurd when that happens among peers.  But I know it does all the time. My old mentor told me one day when I was starting out, the first work we do in this conference room is we move the furniture into a circle. I find we still need to do that at most meetings.

Petra: Then we feel it’s a community. I am involved in the transition research community and we thought to have something, perhaps like a retreat. Informative too of course. But with time to reflect. I like that you’ve mentioned you are including meditation and Yoga. I do think,  if we dare to say this word as scholars, I think we need a more spiritual way now. We have a body and a spirit. They are together. The university makes this also very difficult, including my students.

Hilary: It’s another part of our theatre of the absurd. I guess Descartes wrote our script, right? That the mind and the body are separate. What scares me is how something so obviously mistaken continues to be presumed. Hello we have our very own experience of body mind connection. If we pay attention that is. Yet this old mistake is built in, mostly unquestioned by some of the brightest people in the world. They simply don’t question. This is very strange to me, very strange. So we may as well be a bit radical at our gathering. I resonate with your idea of a retreat. And you know, we don’t want to be too weird. Not immediately anyway! Part of creating a feeling of relational space in a new community is that we introduce people to each other before the meeting too. And then we must keep our eye on moving to action together too. Do you have any thoughts on that. I noticed earlier you said the future workshop did not lead to action. That’s hard, right?

Petra: My idea is if we give space to find our intentions and then support them. Not only thinking for oneself, but for the community and for the whole. So to start thinking about this more extended body we live in. When we let people really think and feel about what they really want to, action can be seamless. It’s always sustainability oriented too if we allow develop what we really want as humans.

Hilary:  What do you say to the educators and researchers who say “Whoa, I’m nervous when you say all our work has to be about sustainability. I want my students to have the option to be the CEO of a corporation.” Of course we know corporations are being transformed by wise leaders too. But maybe you know what I mean. There is trade off thinking.  I hear you saying  it’s not so much what action we take, but the intention with which we do it. A very narrow me-me-me intention is trouble.

Petra: Yeah, the good comes out when people reflect about their true intentions. I think more and more we find this in teaching to be true.

Hilary: I also wonder how we might create an attractor around writing and communicating our way of working together differently? And I wonder about the value of having a new virtual university for those involved in action oriented research. I think we need new innovations beyond conventional education and its knowledge banking expert systems.  So I want to invite you to come to Chalmers and to ask you to think about whom you would best represent so that others coming can connect up and possibly accomplish more together.

Petra: I understand you want us to represent not only ourselves but to represent some larger organization. Network. Our university.

Hilary: While this is the work of individuals it’s best when those individuals have a bigger mission. A bigger self if you will. And come into community with the like hearted. What could be of value, useful to you?

Petra: I have different communities that I could bring in. Let me think more carefully about this and which I have the right to speak for. And maybe I represent my university; we designed a program after a lot of discussions around the kind of program I lead with students. Its not officially assigned to me to be the representative. Because they’re very bureaucratic. They don’t want to give away the power. But I have at least a memorandum of understanding that we’ll do transformative action research with our University. We signed it!

Hilary: I like how you roll, as we say in the States. You’re a professor and you understand how to work in your system which is a hierarchical system. You’ve found an important place to start, with at least some power and freedom to move and get resources for the synergy between your students and the City. And I think it would be lovely if you tell your story too. People do this action oriented research in different ways. It’s helpful to share perspectives. But for now, I’m delighted to meet you. Thank you so much Petra!

Petra Same to you. Thank you so much. Bye Bye.