Tag: Policy Think Tank

Gullah/Geechee Collaboration: Collective Summer Reflections

Gullah/Geechee Collaboration: Collective Summer Reflections

Hannah Jo King 


Thinking back over the course of this summer, I feel proud of the work our group was able to accomplish. Proud because the circumstances of the summer were very difficult. Here in Minneapolis, we had a great tragedy take place at the beginning of the summer, the incompressible murder of George Floyd and the local/national Black Lives Matter uprisings that followed. For weeks I was numb. I didn’t have words to express what I was feeling; I didn’t even know if I was feeling at all. It was confusing to be so sad for the loss of another brother to the hands of police violence. And yet to be confronted with all the conversation, anger, protests, and general activity happening around his death. Confusing because of all of the other many times our Black brothers and sisters have been taken (and continue to be taken) by racial violence and our pain was silenced. This time, it was like every street you walked down, every tweet you read, every meeting you entered, you were confronted with George Floyd. And I think for me it was even beyond Floyd. It was a feeling of being confronted with hundreds of years of racial trauma every day, at multiple points throughout the day, for months. I’m not saying this to invoke pity or to paint myself as a victim. First of all, the nation is rising to its feet over racial injustices, and this is a great thing. Second of all, Black folx are always walking with the pains and joys of our ancestors, and that’s just how it is. I’m saying this because writing helps me process. And I’m also saying this because it’s impossible for me to reflect on my summer CREATE experience without also reflecting on living through the death and wake of the murder of George Floyd.

A learning moment for me this summer was in confronting a mental challenger that I often confront—my hero complex. The one who asks me: “Am I doing enough? Am I supporting communities of color enough?” and the echoing voice that replies, “I’m not selfless enough, I’m not righteous enough, or radical enough, or heroic enough.” While I highly doubt these questions are leaving me any time soon, circumstances did align in such a way that this summer I was able to gain some insight. Our summer mentor, Dr. Kate Derickson, was very active in responding to the Twin Cities’ needs around BLM protests. One day she was out delivering food to one of the many emergency supplies drop off sites that cropped up around the city. That same day our community partner Queen Quet had a live YouTube event with the CREATE Initiative, called “Zooming in on Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage and Sustainability.” Kate reached out to us all to say that she might be late for the event, asking for our help to get the event started if that was the case. Queen Quet replied to her by saying, nope, she better not be late, that she had committed to this event and needed to be there. Even though it’s a small anecdote, the takeaway we later discussed and learned from this was that while Kate was responding to a very real short-term need of the city, Queen Quet was responding to a very real long-term need of her community. And one is not more important than the other. As a person in academia, it’s often hard for me to feel like the work I’m doing is enough, and I wonder if it has any impact at all. But I’m trying my best to accept that we all have different gifts to offer and different parts to play in the struggle for justice. This doesn’t mean that academics are off the hook or that I’m now a supporter of “knowledge for knowledge’s sake.” But I think it does mean that there is space to recognize how and where our work matters: that responding to short-term emergencies and responding to long-term emergencies are two parts of the struggle that are completely intertwined. And even though I know that I’m not a hero and that no one of us alone is going to end racial injustice or climate change or “insert world calamity here,” somehow seeing it here in this context of “community-engaged scholarship amidst crisis” brought that truth home for me.

So going back to where I started, it’s true that I’m proud and amazed at the work we did this summer. The simple fact that we did it was amazing to me. And the hope that I have for how this work may create ripples of benefits for Gullah/Geechee people gives me joy. We were able to create a small community together: Aidan, Ryan, Eskender, Representative Jenkins, Queen Quet, Kate, and me. And that too has value and will have its own ripples.


Ryan Gavin

The plan was to be embedded within an active and alive community organization; to be immersed experientially in community-engaged, interdisciplinary research; to serve and learn by doing—the summer 2020 CREATE experience did not go as planned.

Amidst the backdrop of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and the protests that followed the wanton and brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, I began my community-engaged experience working from home. I was assigned to the group working with Representative Glenda Simmons-Jenkins in Nassau County, Florida and Queen Marquetta Goodwine ‘Queen Quet’ in Saint Helena Island, South Carolina to support the needs of the Gullah Geechee Nation. In truth, I was initially apprehensive about this assignment. It’s not that I didn’t recognize the importance of supporting the Gullah Geechee community, it’s that I couldn’t help but feel like my own community needed supporting, and I wanted to work locally.

My misgivings were immediately dispelled. In our group’s first conversation with Representative Jenkins, she expertly linked the immediate struggle for racial equity in my community with the ongoing struggle for environmental justice and against systemic violence in her community. More than anything, though, she demonstrated a huge amount of care for our own individual wellbeing and exuded an uncommon grace. By the end of the meeting, I was excited to begin the work.

Our group prioritized work in three key areas: we completed a National Science Foundation grant to support research into the ways that wastewater retention ponds affect the Gullah Geechee community in Nassau County, Florida; we built the architecture and did background research for a StoryMap describing the history of the Gullah Geechee Community in Saint Helena Island, South Carolina and integrated functionality into it that would serve to support Gullah Geechee community members; and we helped to facilitate a durable legal partnership between the Gullah Geechee community in Nassau County, Florida and faculty at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Along with Eskender Yousuf, I devoted most of my effort to building the legal partnership. This was an immersive education in capacity building and provided a lot of opportunities to practice meaningful meeting management and interdisciplinary communication. We began by writing emails to any and all local law school faculty and student groups who might be interested in the work that we were doing. Then, we held several informational meetings, and after identifying a faculty member at the St. Thomas University, we worked with Representative Jenkins to facilitate a meeting of all interested parties. This work is ongoing and will hopefully lead to a long-term partnership between the Gullah Geechee community and legal researchers from St. Thomas University, alleviating the burden of constantly having to search for legal direction and expertise currently faced by community members. Though still in the planning stages, new coursework, practicums, and internships have all been proposed as potential ways to integrate the injustices facing the Gullah Geechee community into St. Thomas University’s law school curriculum.

I cannot thank Representative Jenkins and Queen Quet enough for working with me and trusting me to work on their behalf. It’s impossible to separate place, privilege and position from the work that we do. There’s no doubt that I come from a world of privilege—I’m a straight, white, cisgendered, male in America—and without question, the same systems that violence the Gullah Geechee community today are descended from policies that have benefited me and my community. In light of these realities, the remarkable amount of compassion, understanding, and generosity-of-spirit that I experienced throughout this whole process was truly edifying. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from our incredible CREATE partners, Representative Glenda Simmons-Jenkins and Queen Quet, and to grow with my amazingly talented group members: Hannah Jo, Aidan, and Eskender.

Eskender A. Yousuf


During the past 8 months of my CREATE scholars experience I have benefitted from the interdisciplinary learning amongst the group of scholars and scholars in training (graduate students). Coming from more of a humanities and social science background, my work and academic training is focused on systemic issues of PK-16 schooling and its impacts on minoritized populations. More specifically, I am drawn toward better understanding how the societal systemic oppression and exploitation of African descendants in America is reflected in schooling practices; schools are reflective of the larger society in which schooling occurs. Thus, schools are often locations that mimic and reproduce societal inequalities.

Through my time in this program, I learned how environmental issues are another tentacle of systemic injustice. Reading from the literature, and hearing from community representatives, I learned how the Gullah/Geechee Nation, a disenfranchised community of African decedents, was and still is experiencing environmental injustices disproportionally in comparison to surrounding communities. This was my first experience in taking a deeper dive to better understand environmental issues and concerns of a minoritized community.
I often joked with my CREATE research group by poking fun at the idea that I had little to no understanding of what “land loss” or “eminent domain” meant. I bring forth this small, but significant, example in order to demonstrate how far my learning has coming along this summer. I got experience in collectively completing an NSF planning grant, helped mediate a potentially long-standing partnership with Representative Jenkins and Dr. Artika Tyner, and was introduced to storymaps. Before this experience, I have never worked toward obtaining an NSF grant nor utilized storymaps as a research medium.

My participation with this research group and Gullah/Geechee community leaders has provided me with an invaluable opportunity to learn more about environmental justice issues directly from community perspectives. This process highlighted and validated the importance of learning from community perspectives. I was able to learn with and from these community-based perspectives that is oft-neglected in traditional academic research practices.
I am very grateful for the experience this summer. I was able to grow my understanding of environmental equity issues, while also building a “virtual” community with my CREATE peers. This was a HEAVY summer, to say the least. COVID-19 and racial injustices that sparked uprisings across the globe. As a scholar-in-practice, who examines how colonialism, racism, and systemic inequalities impact minoritized populations, this summer exploded all that learning to the surface. Once you are exposed to the historical understanding, it situates the current context much more vividly. Black bodies have continually been sub/dehumanized. Yes, COVID-19 has taken many lives, however racial inequality is far more deadly.

This summer, albeit the most unique I have ever experienced, provided me the flexibility and learning to attempt to fulfil my duty in creating a more just world. This CREATE experience was a component in that process.

Mni Sóta Makoce: A reflection

Mni Sóta Makoce: A reflection

It is unusual for graduate students in our disparate programs (History, Quantitative Methods in Educational Psychology, and Child Development) to collaborate on a project with one another, and even less likely to do so in a community, rather than research, focused context. Through this unique experience of scholarship, we developed many useful skills that will be helpful in future community and academic work. As we created products for a non-academic audience (such as parents and teachers), we realized that the language we oftentime use is complex, full of jargon, and not approachable. Thus, we made sure our products were straightforward and clear. Furthermore, these products differed in the type of thought that was needed to create them. We are used to writing papers using an almost formulaic structure. These products could look like anything we wanted, as long as they communicated our message in the most effective way. This tapped into creativity and innovation that we rarely employ in our academic manuscripts.


Lastly, as junior scholars, we typically approach our projects with clear personal goals that we believe will advance our careers (e.g., this project will be a publication or conference presentation). With the Mni Sóta Maḳoce project, our primary goal was to assist where we were needed to move the project forward. We were challenged to pick up where others had left off on the project, completing a literature review started by a previous scholar and creating and updating a database of teacher contact information. It felt meaningful and impactful to contribute to a project that would directly benefit the community. We found added value in understanding that our skills (new and old) could be put to use not just in the academic institution but also to contribute to the community.


All three of us are recent arrivals to the area, having moved here to attend University of Minnesota. Thus, none of us were very familiar with the history of Mni Sóta Maḳoce. On a basic level this experience was an opportunity for each of us to learn about Dakota history and their land upon which we occupy. However, as the summer progressed and our conversations with Dr. Iyekiyapiwin Darlene St. Clair, our community partner, deepened, we realized that this project was more than simply laying out the timeline of Dakota history or crafting a placemaking narrative which declares that Dakota history is in fact the history of Minnesota. On a deeper level, the Mni Sóta Maḳoce curriculum is about challenging how Minnesota students think about their place on this land, what this land means to them, and how their family is connected to it. The curriculum encourages students to use Dakota values to investigate their own values, and self-reflect upon the kind of life they want to lead. As scholars, we are trained to effectively present facts and research, but so rarely are asked to convey values to others in our work. Working on the Mni Sóta Maḳoce curriculum challenged each of us to move beyond our research skills and seriously consider how to stimulate a transformative process through our products, a process which fundamentally necessitated each of us to do our own self-reflection.

In a non-pandemic world, the CREATE scholar summer externship gives junior scholars the opportunity to engage in an external partnership with a community partner. However, like all other aspects of life, these plans were impacted by COVID-19. Because we could not meet in person and engage in in-person community meetings and events, we thought deeply about how to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on our work and still achieve our goals. Such unprecedented times have taught us each an incredible amount about how to collaborate remotely to reach a common goal.

The support from the CREATE staff and Dr. Iyekiyapiwin Darlene St. Clair, our community partner, has been incredibly gratifying. At the start of summer, we were concerned about our ability to be productive, given the challenges that came along with the pandemic. However, by the time our externship came to an end, we found ourselves producing three different products in collaboration with Darlene, as discussed above. This summer has taught us that no matter the challenges, to never set negative expectations, but rather to be open and optimistic about the opportunities these circumstances might create.

Indeed, the pandemic provided an opportunity to expand the curriculum material to a new audience: the parents and family of students. We are all familiar with the stories of how parents have had to take on a bigger role in their children’s education. Therefore, we focused on providing parents with materials which could give them a deeper understanding of the self-reflection their children would be engaging in and to give them the chance to do some of that self-reflection work themselves. Moreover, we were able to take on the challenges of remote instruction, and work on solutions to help teachers to more effectively engage with this curriculum. Thus, we decided to create a teacher-engagement survey which captured the various techniques teachers have used to convey the goals of the curriculum to their students. We focused on creating open-ended questions that provide teachers an opportunity to reflect on their own experience with the curriculum and material within the curriculum that may help inform improvements to the curriculum and how it should be delivered during remote teaching.

 
“Adapting to Urgency”

“Adapting to Urgency”

My experience as a CREATE Scholar this summer taught me new ways to listen, and new ways to show up for the social movements that our research hoped to support. As many of us have learned over the past year, our research with CREATE and Pillsbury United Communities (P.U.C.) taught us how to adapt to constantly changing circumstances. 

 

Co-creating an interdisciplinary, community-based research project this summer was going to be a challenge for me even before the pandemic hit, because co-creating research questions and building trust is an evolving, iterative process even in non-crisis times. First, the pandemic changed the possibilities for how we could form those relationships with our community partners. Then just as we were adjusting to socially-distanced, remote communications, and our partners’ reduced capacity to engage in a co-creative research process due to multiple pandemic-driven crises, the Minneapolis Police Department murdered George Floyd, setting in motion the Minneapolis Uprisings that dramatically shifted community priorities towards more urgent needs like securing safe shelter, food, and taking care of our neighbors. We started using our project team meetings to process, reflect, support each other, and think about ways we could shift aspects of our project to help respond to some of the pressing community needs we were witnessing here in Minneapolis. This manifested itself in a few ways for me.

 

I knew that despite the on-going pandemic and national guard occupation of the city, I would still find ways to learn through engaging in community this summer. This came in the form of attending protests and vigils, supporting local mutual aid organizing work that seeks to address the State and non-profit infrastructures’ failure to provide for our basic needs. As a future planner–and especially as a white planner–its critical that I use my resources and time to learn in the community–not just behind a desk at the computer. It’s critical that I support and show-up for racial and housing justice movements, and build relationships that will influence how I show up in traditional decision-making spaces, whose voices are present or amplified in those spaces, and what, ultimately, is on the agenda for a planning meeting. I’m not sure I have a full picture of what it looks like to be an anti-racist planner in practice yet, but after this summer I believe it starts with listening to the right people–people who, traditionally, have never been meaningfully listened to or given control of making decisions about urban redevelopment, housing, or economic development in our city–and letting those movements drive the process. 

 

In some ways, I believe our group’s research around property vacancy and gentrification was made more important by the confluence of multiple crises this summer. The problems and questions that our project partners, P.U.C., had about ownership along West Broadway will persist after the urgency of this moment subsides and are connected to the roots of the crises of white supremacy and pandemic we are witnessing today. The disproportionate number of vacant and condemned property in predominantly Black and P.o.C. neighborhoods like North Minneapolis is the direct result of government policy that systematically disinvested in these communities. These same policies then allowed financial institutions to target many residents with predatory loan products and then buy-up and sit on the vacant, foreclosed properties (Immergluck 2011). Areas that are the most disinvested, are those that become the most profitable through the new capital flows of gentrification processes (Smith 1979). We know that the Louisville police murder of Breonna Taylor, was likely partially the result of an effort to accelerate a multi-million dollar redevelopment plan for her block (Bailey & Duvall 2020, Beck 2020). We need more research that works towards addressing and calling out the connections between policy and root problems like racism and settler colonialism. Co-creative, community engagement research models like CREATE’s, that focus on relationship building and leveling the power imbalance between academia and marginalized communities, is one way to meaningfully approach this. 

    

While our final story map and co-creative process could have been improved by more conversations and qualitative interviews with community members and property owners along West Broadway Avenue, we had to adapt to the moment. Traditional research methods often  unnecessarily demand the limited time and energy of folks in marginalized communities and extract those invaluable resources for the net benefit of researchers and academia rather than the community itself. 

 

We experienced this first hand as part of the CREATE Scholars experience. All three of us on the Minneapolis team (Adam Moskowitz, Stuart Deets and myself) helped with data collection for a ragweed project helmed by post-docs Amanda Gorton and Hillary Waters, in which we were assigned particular blocks to walk and collect data on the prevalence of ragweed, a plant which grows well in disturbed areas like boulevards. Many homeowners and community members were extremely interested in what we were doing and why we were doing it, and when we explained, they expressed that they had seen researchers like us before. These other researchers were like us–they came into the neighborhood that they didn’t live in or spend time in on other occasions, and many of the people that we talked to were uncertain about the benefit that all of this research was doing. What was the research doing to improve their lives? Building meaningful, trusting relationships with neighborhoods and community members takes time, something that we learned repeatedly over the course of the summer. 

 

As a result, we chose to focus the time we had on being more intentional in our communications with P.U.C. and honoring CREATE’s on-going relationship with them. We engaged with them in the iterative process of co-developing possible research questions, deciding what a mutually-beneficial product might look like and sharing draft versions of our maps and story-map content. 

 

Whether or not community members’ seeking to influence development changes use our web map and story map as the tool we intended, my experience engaging in this co-creative community research project this summer has undoubtedly shifted the way I intend to show up for racial and housing justice and build meaningful relationships in my role as a planner and community member.

Community Engagement in the Environmental Sciences

Community Engagement in the Environmental Sciences

A virtual panel discussion of best practices, approaches and principles for collaboration between environmental sciences and communities that have not historically shaped the research priorities of academic institutions featuring: 

Queen Quet; Chieftess and Head of State of the Gullah/Geechee Nation & UMN CLA Winton Chair in the Liberal Arts

Na’Taki Osborne Jelks; Spelman College & West Atlanta Watershed Alliance 

Dan Rizza; Climate Central

Kurt Kipfmueller; University of Minnesota

Moderated by Kate Derickson

Showcasing The CREATE Initiative: Sharing in the Benefits of a Greening City

Showcasing The CREATE Initiative: Sharing in the Benefits of a Greening City

As social movements leaders remind us, in the midst of all the work that needs to happen in the world, we must celebrate our wins. After over two years of deeply relational research and product-generation, the CREATE Initiative hosted a public showcase to celebrate these “wins”: contributions made by staff, students, and community partners to address the urgent question of green gentrification.  

Hosted at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs in mid-February, the showcase was an opportunity to share all of our work over the last few years as a unified body of research. We highlighted the contributions from our 2019 CREATE Scholars cohort, presenting products that are resourcing our partners in Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Nassau County, Florida. An interactive mapping demonstration allowed attendees to experiment with layering data about housing, racial covenants, environmental toxins, and park investments to understand first-hand how these systems of housing and environmental (in)justice interact across space. Attendees also left with copies of our recently-published policy toolkit for mitigating green gentrification entitled Sharing in the Benefits of a Greening City. 

A panel of CREATE partners from our Policy Think Tank and the Mapping Prejudice Project offered up a series of generative reflections on the importance of community-engaged research, the pitfalls of working inside and with University institutions, and the urgency of centering marginalized forms of knowledge in research. Moderated by CREATE Co-Director Bonnie Keeler, the panelists were particularly adamant about the connection between process and product, a fundamental relationship that has been central to the CREATE Initiative ethos. As panelist, Policy Think Tank member, and professor at St. Cloud State University Iyekiyapiwin Darlene St. Clair told the audience, authentically relational research is essential to engaging the humanity not only of the community research partner, but of the academic researcher as well. In other words, when we forgo attention to process, we lose something of ourselves as well. 

The sold-out showcase presented an important opportunity to step back and view our work as a collection rather than individual products. In doing so, we were able to articulate moments of connection that we had not previously verbalized. Furthermore, this showcase allowed us to reflect as a team on where this project started. As we wrote in the showcase introductory statement: 

When we began this work, some scholars and public officials wondered to us whether there was anything that could be done about the way that green initiatives sometimes displace vulnerable communities. The work we are presenting here is our attempt to answer that question affirmatively: yes, there are things that can be done to ensure that everyone shares in the benefits of a greening city. Our goal was not to offer a one-size-fits-all solution, but rather to mobilize the resources of the research university to take stock of how communities understand these problems and develop creative, if at times partial, solutions, and to support the ongoing efforts of our collaborators to make just, green futures a reality. 

Our ongoing conversations with community organizations, public agencies, and institutional partners have made clear that these questions are not going away any time soon. There is just as much, if not more, demand for clearly articulated and accessible analysis of green gentrification as ever. If anything, CREATE’s collaborative research process has only spread interest in this question through a growing network of stakeholders. 

As CREATE continues to deepen our research into the historical and contemporary relationships between green infrastructure investments, racial exclusion, and housing displacement, we will hold these reflections as a place of re-grounding and, as Darlene wisely insisted, look for ways to make this research a place from which to deepen our own humanity. 

All work products highlighted at the showcase can be viewed on our website. A full version of Sharing in the Benefits of a Greening City is available for download here. If you would like to request a physical copy of the toolkit, to borrow the interactive maps we have generated, or to coordinate a presentation about this work at your organization, please email create@umn.edu

For more, you can read, listen, and watch recent coverage of the CREATE Initiative here. 

Turning Inward: the politics of knowledge production and figuring out what we have to offer

Turning Inward: the politics of knowledge production and figuring out what we have to offer

Seasonal transitions are a good time for reflection. For CREATE, this reflection was kicked into gear a week after the fall solstice through a green gentrification learning exchange. 

The trip brought together all the geographically-disparate members of our Policy Think Tank from Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Nassau County, Florida. The purpose of the gathering was to share experiences and build relationships through the lens of greening and displacement. With interpersonal exchange as a foundation, the secondary goal was to discuss a recently-completed full draft of Sharing the Benefits of a Greening City, CREATE’s anti-green gentrification policy toolkit which has been in development for the past year. 

This document, some of which can already be found in digital form online, is a container for all of the research and wisdom our partners have shared over months of collaboration. It is an attempt to build a collective and context-aware understanding of green gentrification across a multitude of audiences: community organizers, environmental organizations, public agency staff, and municipal policymakers. In doing so, our goals are twofold: to validate the environmental and housing justice concerns that communities of color, working class, and indigenous communities have long expressed, and to provide an actionable resource based on existing strategies that can help shift some of the fundamental social and economic relations that produce such deep injustices in the first place. 

In true academic form, these ambitious goals led to a document that ballooned to a cool 75 pages (prompting some joking complaints from Policy Think Tank members). But the length and density of this toolkit led to one of the most important questions raised during the learning exchange: how does your body feel when you read this?

It was a pointed challenge, and a creative one. How does one understand academic reports – no matter how accessible the language is – through somatic experience?

In the spirit of this challenge, I have spent the week and a half since reflecting on the learning exchange as an embodied experience itself. 

Learning Exchange participants listen to Erica Holloman with the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance share stories about Black and indigenous histories in southwest Atlanta. We gathered at Grandfather Beech, a tree who’s birth dates just two months before Union General William Sherman ordered “the Burning of Atlanta” during the Civil War. Interacting with this place-based history and its contemporary ramifications offered a somatic grounding for the workshop that followed.

During the feedback process, our partners were able to surface some of the deepest tensions in work with amazing precision. 

These tensions include between process and product, ideological commitment and inclusive collaboration, and harm reduction and harm eradication. How do we build authentic research partnerships with collaborators who hold a variety of positionalities and strategies? How do we maintain our central commitment to knowledge redistribution while leveraging our resources to do work in the world? 

These questions are not new – to CREATE or engaged-research in general – but they still forced a timely turn inward to reflect. 

Community-engaged research inherently recognizes the fluidity between how people and knowledge shape one another. In that recognition, there are deep pedagogical lessons for academics to learn from how community organizations approach the people-knowledge dialectic – and reasons to question the traditional academic approach to this relationship. 

At the same time, community-engaged research must recognize that there are distinct strategies that academia and community organizing use. Community-engaged research does not magically turn academics into community organizers. This means taking the lead from organizers, identifying where to develop new skills and where to set limitations, and holding humility when those boundaries are inevitably crossed. 

It also means that merging community-based and academic strategies into a singular approach is not necessarily effective nor desirable. Rather, using a diversity of tactics asserts that groups with different strengths, backgrounds, and positionalities can leverage distinct assets through differentiated yet aligned strategies. 

CREATE’s job is not as a social justice trainer. We are not experts in somatics or interpersonal mediation or trauma-healing. We are academics and researchers, so what do we have to offer?

The learning exchange was the pull I needed away from squinting at my computer in my windowless cubicle. It brought me eye-level with people around me who are researching the same questions I meticulously catalog through Google Scholar with their day-to-day movement through the world. 

These are two strategies that, under racial capitalism, are characterized by vastly different amounts of power and prestige. This relationship reflects that, as CREATE co-PI Kate Derickson said, “the politics of knowledge production lies in a bundle of social relations.” 

This tension, among all the others that the learning exchange raised, is one that I necessarily hold in my body as I navigate this work. It is embodied. Increasing my own awareness of its embodied form will hopefully plant a greater personal stake that will help me relate its content to others in more meaningful ways. I have no idea how to do this. 

CREATE’s attempt to answer the “what do we have to offer question” is located in the primary goal of doing knowledge production differently. Doing it differently for us means in a way that is cognizant of and accountable to context and power. The learning exchange was an important reminder that we need to constantly face and re-face this messiness head on. And remind ourselves of the parts we don’t know how to do yet. 

CREATE’s Model of Engagement

CREATE’s Model of Engagement

Community-engaged research partnerships have the potential to be transformative for community-based collaborators and researchers alike.  For communities, especially those that are under-resourced or have not historically had the ear of decision-makers, gaining access to sophisticated research that explores questions that are timely and meaningful for their sets of concerns can level the playing field in a decision-making context.  

In urban planning processes, for example, developers can hire consultants to generate promise-filled plans, reports, and projections that can be challenging to vet for people who don’t have access to their own research. Tireless community advocates who have worked overtime to develop expertise on an issue and conducted their own research on a shoe string budget are familiar figures in the urban and environmental political landscape, but the demands of this unsupported work are often too onerous for everyday people to sustain.  

Partnerships with university-based researchers can resource these efforts, providing communities with similar levels of research support that developers, large NGOs and state agencies enjoy and promoting increased community participation in urban and environmental decision-making processes.  

For researchers, these partnerships can be equally rewarding.  There is a growing sense amongst university-based researchers that the “ivory tower” model of research perpetuates inequality even as it attempts to research its roots. In the context of eroding trust in expertise, trust-building collaborations can make research findings travel further and have a greater impact.  

Collaborative, community-engaged research isn’t necessarily only “applied” research – when done thoughtfully it can invite insight into the questions considered to be the frontiers of scientific inquiry. Engaged citizens raise topics, problems and potential solutions that can generate new, creative pathways for research.  In the case of CREATE, our collaborations with communities in Atlanta, Florida and Minneapolis have provided fertile ground for pushing the boundaries of ecosystem services research to better account for the social impacts of the approach.  

As urgent and exciting as engaged research can be, it can be challenging to do.  Communities that have long been “researched” but seldom genuinely engaged as partners are understandably skeptical that university-based research will deliver any real value to them.  Under-resourced community organizations have little spare time to give to researchers who may or may not generate findings and products of value to their work. And academic institutions tend to undervalue and de-incentivize genuine community-engaged research, which has different timelines, requires different resources, and has different ethical dimensions than “traditional” research.

In spite of these challenges, there are myriad examples of effective, generative, and long-term research collaborations between communities and universities.  At CREATE, we are piloting a model of community collaboration that is responsive to a decade of community-engaged research that I have conducted through the geography field, as well as the experiences of our community-based collaborators.

The central ethos of our approach is “resourcefulness,” which has three different dimensions:

1)    It centers the needs of community-based collaborators by framing university-based researchers as resources for collaborators.  We flip the script to ensure that our collaborators benefit from research and the researchers put in the time, money, and the bulk of the work.

2)    It brings to the fore the issue of material resources, and emphasizes the need to focus on how resources are spent throughout the collaboration.  We are attentive to whose time is prioritized and compensated, whose travel is paid for, and whose priorities and needs drive the distribution of the project’s resources.

3)    It rethinks what the university has to offer publics, especially those who have not historically had access to shaping the priorities of research universities.  We take a fresh look at what the libraries, our speaker series and college-wide initiatives, our classrooms, our graduate training programs as well as our research initiatives can provide our community collaborators.

We have actualized this resourcefulness framework through our program structure. Central to this structure is the “policy think tank,” a body supported by CREATE staff that serves as a vehicle for our community-based collaborators to share ideas and identify research products that would be of value for their communities. Think tank members receive a stipend for their participation that they can use to augment their salary or resource their organizations. The think tank in turn informs our “synthesis team” comprised of interdisciplinary researchers whose role is to design, find funding for, and conduct research that our think tank considers a priority.  

This approach is distinct from “participatory action research” in which community partners participate in every stage of the research. While this model has its merits and applications, it is only one type of community-engaged research. Instead of focusing on collaboration through the process of conducting the research itself, our focus is on the topics, approaches and products we develop.

Finally, we have a team of faculty and administrators interested in changing the nature of graduate education, to train students to conduct engaged, problem-oriented research in collaborative, interdisciplinary settings. This advisory team takes lessons from our policy think tank and synthesis team and applies them in their own engagement with graduate education.  

Like any good collaborative effort, our approach is a work in progress and we’ll continue to iterate on it as our work unfolds. Look here for further updates to our model and approach!

Atlanta in Review: actualizing co-generated research

Atlanta in Review: actualizing co-generated research

Fayola Jacobs and I did not plan on making a trip to Atlanta five days before the city was set to be overtaken by the Super Bowl. But after a few schedule hangups and a general disregard for the National Football League, that’s when we went. Luckily, a few shouted airport greetings was the extent of any football-fanaticism we encountered, and an impending snow forecast stymied fears of pre-Super Bowl traffic.  

For both Fayola and I, this trip was our first opportunity to meet in-person with the Atlanta-based members of CREATE’s Policy Think Tank, a group of community partners whose experiential and organizational insights have been a driving force in CREATE’s work around environmental gentrification. Our Atlanta Think Tank partners are leaders of two local environmental justice organizations: Na’Taki Osborne Jelks and Erica Holloman with the Western Atlanta Watershed Alliance (WAWA), and Yomi Noibi with EcoAction. We were also joined by Think Tank member Glenda Jenkins, a representative of the Gullah/Geechee Nation from Nassau County, FL.

Policy Think Tank in Atlanta
From Left: Glenda Simmons-Jenkins, Mira Klein, Erica Holloman, Na’Taki Osborne Jelks, Fayola Jacobs

The Policy Think Tank is at the heart of CREATE’s commitment to co-generated research, re-envisioning the University research process wherein authentically engaging community expertise and democratizing knowledge production are at the core. In order to put these ideals into practice, The Think Tank brings together community-based practitioners and academics to consider research questions and work products that actually address community needs and desires related to, in this case, the intersections of water and equity.

It was these community partners that pointed to the importance of examining green gentrification in the first place; as they pointed out, any discussion of water and equity must consider the interconnected layers of race, access, and displacement. The CREATE Anti-Green Gentrification Toolkit is what emerged from that insight.

In December, Fayola and I began working on building a first draft of what this toolkit might look like. Reflecting the initial guidance from the Think Tank, we imagined its purpose as a resource for clarifying how environmental infrastructure and gentrification interact, and to suggest some policy strategies for combating the green gentrification process.

By mid-January, we had written almost fifty pages of policy tools, case studies, and definitions – but still had some big questions: Who is the appropriate audience for this toolkit? How do we avoid reinventing the wheel and create something that will be both useful and actually used? What does it look like to make something that is both particular and general in terms of applicability? These were some of the questions that we had in mind when we went to Atlanta to solicit our Think Tank partners for feedback.

It turns out that these questions are relevant, but missing the most important consideration: How do we make information about green gentrification actionable?

As Erica Holloman of WAWA said, we don’t want this to be a case of “death by toolkit” – and fifty pages of policy overview would probably do just that.

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