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Community-based research in environmental justice

  • 7 July 2020

How do communities share their hopes and actions for change? Communities who are marginalized have a very different thought process to those actively engaging with change. Communities, when gathered, are often a disunity of people who happen to be living in a same geographical space. They do not necessarily operate collectively; someone of the local elite may be in control.

People in the margins are often looking for something when somebody visits; research does not generally figure in their imagination. There is a guessing period. They try to guess what the visitor or researcher wants them to say. They do not initially want (or see) a particular problem to be solved, and the whole problem is often one of livelihood. But livelihood is seen perhaps not as a problem, but a lived burden given that their individual efforts have failed to achieve a collective difference.

Change does not start with the topic of what’s up for research. So how does the sense of change come in a community gathering?

The process is much more a discourse of the present and warms up with story-telling. It is important to listen to stories of those opposing as well as those supporting. This is more important than engaging to solve their problem. We need to foster active listening, to learn to listen well, and together, share thoughts where feelings emerge, and from this draw out positive expressions to consider anew.

Communities are not projects; communities are life. Communities live out problems and hopes. Marginalized communities do not observe food insecurity, they live through it. To try to get the community to stand outside of such difficulties requires them to shift the conversation.

When listening to their stories, one can slowly form a common experience and a shared attitude. And with this shared attitude, one can find the right time to ask, “what if?” and have a shared basis for exploring areas of research.

The researcher will be able to ask the story the researcher wants to write or find in the researcher’s own life. This entails much thinking, listening, and reflection, with community redirection. Discernment can be done through different processes.

So, as a researcher, one quickly finds out a community is not an easy collective whole. Often there is a lot of in-between space and many connections are needed. At some point, there is a discernment process to help identify interested partners, to clarify how to stand together and how principles and values line up. It will be necessary to revisit this over time. In this way, one can help in locating and animating the community’s passion for environmental justice and find allies.

Pedro Walpole SJ

This article is an extract from a longer article on Ecojesuit. 

Photo credit: M Alvim, August 2019

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