‘The University always has to have its moment in the spotlight.’ Sarcasm dripped from every word, heard by me even though it was whispered only to his neighbour in the audience. His colleague laughed in reply. I had just given a talk as part of a Conference on Bristol’s Resilience Strategy, on work we had co-produced.
On another occasion, after speaking about the racial impacts of climate change, a person who’s opinion I valued and still value above nearly all others cornered me and said, ‘If you care so much about racial inequality why is your audience all white? Why are your speakers all white?’
Co-production. Participatory Approaches. Citizen Science. Co-creation. Shared learning. We now recognise that our research – maybe all of it and certainly aspects of it – cannot be conducted in the ivory tower but instead must be done in an engaged, equal and constructive partnership with the relevant communities. Increasingly, however, the nature of that engagement is critiqued. Who do we engage and why? What are the implicit and explicit power imbalances and hierarchies? Even when we engage genuinely, are we still centering our agenda through our soft influence and power?
These are not new questions, but as researchers approach community engagement with new enthusiasm, they are re-discovered by new parts of the academic community and university leadership. The lessons have to be learned again. Our partners have to teach us. Again. And are exploited further.
Twenty years ago, it was thought to be enough to simply be seen to be engaging, so desperate were cities and communities for researchers to listen to them. But engagement can reproduce the same inequities of the past. In fact, given the greater emotional and labour investment of the partnership, the potential for exploitation is far greater.
Why must we engage?
I was asked this at a recent workshop, not because anyone there thought it was a contested question but rather to stimulate discussion. Nonetheless, if we are to collaborate with communities with integrity, it is essential to understand not just why we are obliged to engage as researchers but why we choose to engage as people.
When I first started working more closely with communities – those in Tanzania as part of project to study past climate, with Bristol communities to explore local climate action – I was inspired by the classical reasons. It is fun; I enjoy working with people. And it is ethical; people have a right to know where and how their taxes, resources, or history are used and have a right to shape that research.
As I increasingly focused on the intersection of my work on past climate change with local and national strategies for climate action and resilience, my motivation became more pragmatic. If we expect our work to make a difference to society, then people need to have not just understanding but buy-in to that research. Where possible, they should be co-creating those solutions and policies, whether via Citizen Assemblies or involvement in technological innovations. Too often, scientists, engineers and social scientists have envisioned solutions that have been met with apathy, indifference or even hostility by the citizens they’ve been meant to serve: nuclear power, pesticides and genetically modified crops. Vaccines. And with communities, flood defences, wind farms, hazard resilience strategies, clean air zones, park restoration. Co-production will never eliminate controversy, but it mitigates it. And it certainly helps all of society anticipate challenges and create a more constructive path towards the implementation of solutions. It will be especially important to implement the very challenging changes required to address the Climate and Ecological Emergencies.
Although I still embrace that pragmatic rationale and approach, it is too simplistic.
First, it is not enough to simply engage the usual, expected or obvious stakeholders. Instead, we must ask challenging questions about who we are engaging and why, viewed through a decolonial lens and in a manner that challenges the prevailing conventions. Failure to do so in a society with deeply embedded inequities – locally, nationally and globally – will likely replicate or even amplify the structural racism, sexism and classism of our world.
Take as an example the electric car, a critical part of decarbonising transport. In the news, in policy, and in engagement by researchers, whose voices are privileged, whose have been centered. Whose have been marginalised. Which communities do we challenge and which do we placate. I would argue that the entire dialogue centres the current car user – how to make electric cars affordable and comfortable. How to build the enabling infrastucture. Where to invest in charging stations. The dialogue frequently fails to consider the non-car user or the impoverished. It almost always fails to consider the resources to manufacture those cars: The countries that still suffer from neocolonial exploitation; the people in those countries; the marginalised groups and indigenous communities in those countries. Every pledge to invest in electrification of transport is a colonial claim to a finite resource, and yet these issues are almost never discussed in the race to innovate and invest.
The act of engagement is not a neutral one.
Second, we must complicate the personal dimension of the ‘why engage’ question by examining motivations and power inequities. What are your motivations. Why are you doing this? Was it necessary to the grant? Is it necessary for your work to have ‘impact’? Is it because it is what your employer expects of you in order to achieve the previous? Engagement is necessary for the success of academics and the University, and therefore, it is always an act of institutional privilege, centering our agenda even when it is co-produced.
This is what sits under the simmering resentment of the anecdote I opened with. That work was some of my most genuine and heartfelt; it was good work of which I am proud and it did involve multiple communities. But in that moment, in that forum, I was speaking because I was expected to. I had a platform not because of the work but because of my employer. I had long ago understood my white and male privilege, but in that moment I understood my institutional privilege. Just like I had initially resisted the idea of white privilege because I had suffered as a poor working class kid in rural Ohio, I resisted the idea of institutional privilege because I viewed myself as another proud Union member who loved the University of Bristol but still thought of myself as exploited by the neoliberal University machine as anyone else.
But it is not true. I had and have the privilege of working for an institution that has nearly a billion pound annual turnover, whose decisions shape our city in profound and long-lasting ways, skewing property values, demographics and investment. I have no doubt that our University, as progressive as it is, brings not only income to Bristol but also inequality. I was leveraging that privilege for a spotlight. And I would later be able to leverage that spotlight for recognition and promotion.
These complicated power dynamics are not an excuse not to engage, however; they are a lesson about recognising the privilege that is embodied in any interaction with our community. A counter example is my involvement with the Bristol Festival of Nature. For over ten years, the University and my research group has attended, bringing an interactive display about how molecular fossils can tell us about past climate and past human history. It is sort of the most rudimentary form of community engagement. There is no co-creation. It’s just scientists rocking up and talking to the public and answering their questions. And no one has ever challenged my role in that or the University’s.
That is because this engagement, although it offers little, offers more than it asks.
Deep, meaningful, long-term and honest engagement with communities is not necessarily “better” than rocking up and giving a talk but it is deeper, with greater rewards and also greater obligations. In any interaction, but especially interactions involving the vast power disparities of Universities with their cities or UK scientists with marginalised communities, it is not enough to fixate only on the most effective mechanism but to understand the privilege we derive from those power differentials, the underlying transactions and the potential for exploitation.
Barriers to Engagement and their Solutions
The Barriers to successful engagement are extensive: finding common cause, a shared language and approach, agreeing mutually beneficial outcomes. There are questions of legitimacy and trust, especially when there has been a history of exploitation. When trust is built, there is the shared frustration of funding, with the options available to all of us limited to months or years, undermining the ability to develop the meaningful relationships to which we aspire.
Prosaically, the solutions are obvious. Coming from a privileged organisation, can you procure more long-term investment? Given that engagement is part of our jobs, are we willing to transfer some of our academic privilege to our partners by volunteering our time?
But informing and underpinning all of that is the essential need to understand the transactions implicit or explicit in our partnerships. I don’t want any of us to make our world any more transactional than it already is. But we are obliged to have an understanding of the transactions that are explicit and implicit in our partnerships – for us and our partners – and use that understanding to build a collaboration based on equity, honesty and empathy.
Researchers must be more honest with our partners about what we will get out of it – and sometimes that means being more honest with ourselves. Successful engagement will help us get a PhD. A job. A grant. A paper. A promotion. A pay raise.
Similarly – and in light of history and privilege differentials – we must create the space where our partners can also be honest about their needs, their research priorities, and how they need to have that knowledge returned to them in an actionable way.
And we have an obligation to understand what we are asking of them. Remember this: For a poor person, we can ask for few things more valuable than time. For someone from a marginalised group, we can ask for few things more valuable than their emotional labour, experience and re-lived trauma.
And most of all, understand the source of power imbalances in any interaction. Marginalised groups have power. Growing up in a working class family, I was acutely aware that we did not have access to much financial, legal or political power; but we had other power that comes from closeness, resilience and lived experience. My community partners would say the same. The Green and Black Ambassadors are powerful. Ujima Radio is powerful. The real question is the intersection of power and privilege. What power (skills, knowledge, experience) is privileged in society? And what power do we wield in a civic partnership that arises not from legitimacy but from our institutional and individual privilege.
What I learned about dismantling privilege and building engagement with the Green and Black Ambassadors
In 2015 Bristol was the European Green Capital and it was widely regarded as a successful year. But it was rightfully critiqued for failing to be inclusive – despite well intentioned efforts to be so. Because of that, I partnered via the Cabot Institute with Ujima Radio, a community radio station, and the Bristol Green Capital Partnership to explore the lack of inclusion during the Green Capital Year and more widely in the environmental movement. This was the Green and Black Conversation, and through its delivery we learned a lot of things that environmental movement should have known already:
– That the programme was shaped by and favoured the interests of the ‘in-crowd’; its focus and themes, the venues, the types of events all reflected the tastes, interests and convenience of the usual suspects.
– That they were invited to events and even to speak but only after the agenda was set.
– That individuals and groups that represented marginalised groups were being exploited for their time and labour. Moreover, they were not supported in leveraging the Green Capital accolades to win their own funding. It is not the same for the Director of the Cabot Institute for the Environment to sacrifice his day to attend a sustainability workshop than it is for the Director of a racial equity organisation. Not only are there questions of alignment of responsibilities but also a chasm in resource. Inviting them to attend was not inclusion. Expecting them to attend was exploitation.
– That the language was exclusionary. In particular, language about marginalised groups assumed a lack of interest – ‘How do we get more Black people into nature.’ ‘How can we ensure Black people have access to nature’ – without recognising that they already had their own initiatives and projects. That they had their own sustainability solutions. That they were engaged just not with the ‘in crowd’s projects.
– We would always pay our Ambassadors and our partners, compensating them for their labour and experience; and that we would use our privilege to demand the same from all future partners.
– We would invest in a new generation, recognising both the great capacity in Bristol’s African and Caribbean populations but also that this capacity had been undermined by decades of under-investment.
– We would give them a platform to promote initiatives from their own community; and eventually, we would cede our platforms to them. I would no longer accept the invitations arising from my institutional privilege but pass those invitations to Zakiya and Jazz.
– We would be allies in challenging institutions, including our own. We advocated for their voices in our Board Rooms, classrooms, working parties, One City Plans and more. We were their voice when they were not present but more importantly, we agreed to open the door and let them come in and have our places instead.
In short, it was a political project to challenge the lack of equity and inclusion in the environmental movement, politics and industry. And although that might seem far from how you might build engagement into a research proposal, it is not. The principles for all engagement must be the same because all interactions characterised by power differentials are political projects.
But moreso, this type of collaboration enriches and adds value to all of our scholarly endeavours. Much of the Green and Black Ambassadors Programme was funded by my ERC project on The Greenhouse Earth System. Centering racial inclusion in the environmental movement might seem rather removed from developing molecular tools to study Earth’s climate 50 million years ago. Maybe. But by building trust, relationships and credibility, I have been able to share my research findings with 1000s of people I might not otherwise. The palaeoclimate research was never centred, rarely prominent, usually never mentioned, because that would have undermined the ethos of the Green and Black Programme. Instead our conversations focused on the air pollution and food poverty issues that our engaged communities had prioritised.
But here is the thing: I’d far rather have my work be a very small part of a large story shared by many than the central part of a small story heard by few. And I think that is a truth of the entire suite of global crises we face. If we are to address the many environmental and social justice challenges of the future, we must embrace community while rejecting ego.
Addendum. There is a lot of ‘us’ and ‘them’ in this essay. Ultimately, we must get away from that. We must avoid not just the language of we and them but the unconscious view from which that language arises. But I still believe that in the vast majority of partnerships, ‘we’ still need to do better by ‘them’; and pretending we are all in this together, that we all enter into a partnership with equal privilege and capacity is duplicitous. So my final advice is recognise there is an ‘us’ and ‘them’ arising from differences in privilege, and do everything you can to dismantle that.
Addendum 2: Once you begin to explore power differentials, you unlock a range of challenging questions. In particular, I find this short article by Farhana Sultana to be illuminating in revealing the power dynamics within the communities we engage.