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Participatory Action Research and Organizing for Justice

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I am including below an edited version of a review I wrote recently of a book about Participatory Action Research (PAR) because I find the book so relevant to the organizing for justice that has been sweeping the country and world. PAR is very much in line with the politics embodied in the Occupy movements; it is rooted in the wisdom and knowledge of the 99% and in people's lives and experiences. The principles of PAR have been critical to social movements for self-determination throughout the world. PAR recognizes the fundamental importance of questions like the one posed by Angela Davis in relation to the Occupy movements: "How can we come together in a unity that is not simplistic and oppressive, but complex and emancipatory, recognizing, in June Jordan's words, that 'we are the ones we have been waiting for.'"

Not since Fals Borda and Rahman (1991), Freire (1970), and Marino (1997), have I found a book on Participatory Action Research to be as reaffirming of the potential power of PAR as this collection of essays, Education, Participatory Action Research, and Social Change: International Perspectives , edited by Dip Kapoor and Steven Jordan. Both editors bring a unique, critical perspective and dimension to framing, understanding, analyzing, and reflecting upon PAR. The collection of essays they have assembled on PAR, education, and social change delves deeply into the possibilities for PAR to be truly liberating.

The editors' introduction frames the book, which examines PAR within international contexts and describes the essays' common theme: how to engage in a process that is transformative, while, at the same time, recognizing and resisting the forces that tend to distort or co-opt PAR and thereby perpetuate the very structures that PAR is meant to oppose. Focusing particularly on indigenous communities and the global south, while also including Euro-American critical traditions, the editors achieve what they set out to do:

"By embracing indigenous conceptions, approaches and practices of PAR as a living praxis; by magnifying the role and contribution of PAR in the multifarious struggles of marginalized social groups in the regions of the global South (Africa, Asia, and Latin America); and by engaging critical Euro-American conceptions of PAR and its utility in a politics attentive to addressing ecological concerns, commercialization of education/research and the containment of democratic pedagogies and popular research/knowledge processes in formal education, it is hoped that this collection will return PAR to its anti and/or critical-colonial roots in living indigenous traditions (Smith 1999), to Euro-American critical traditions and to third worldist conceptions."

The book is divided evenly into a more theoretical section and a section of case studies, though both sections interweave theory and conceptual frameworks with examples of PAR in practice. The authors all share a commitment, as is clear from the titles of many of the essays, to opposing "neo-liberal appropriation" and "intellectual imperialism" and to supporting and participating in community-generated processes that foster liberation and self-determination. The sweep of the book is broad, with opening essays on North and South, India, and the Maoris, and nine case studies in the second section that focus on Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Ghana, South Africa, Algeria, Brazil, Chile, Bangladesh, and Canada.

Particular essays stand out, offering new perspectives and insights. Many of the projects and conceptualizations of PAR focus on indigenous communities, highlighting the ways in which some indigenous cultures "have managed to maintain and reproduce social relations and practices that effectively constitute organic forms of PAR that are specific to the indigenous cultures that generate them." Strong cultural spaces and locations within many indigenous communities can create a meaningful foundation for PAR to be nourished and for different kinds of knowledge to be generated.

In the book's opening section, Jordan recounts PAR's history and how some of what researchers have done in the name of PAR turned away from its radical origins. One example is the notion of creating "participatory" work environments that, in reality, have more to do with furthering capitalist production than meeting the needs of the workers. Jordan believes that part of reclaiming PAR involves drawing upon and integrating other methodologies, such as critical ethnography. Such integration will enable a process that builds alliances among a range of research communities and challenges the notion of "participation" to ensure that what evolves is emancipatory, rather than exploitative or compromised. Jordan describes how this process becomes particularly important as neo-liberalism has become an increasingly driving force for models of supposed "participation."

Much of the effectiveness of the essays in the opening section stem from the consistent way that the contributors ground theory in lived -- and often vividly described -- experience. In a superb and probing essay, Weber-Pillwax, for example, discusses the indigenous way of learning about the world that was central to her childhood but that she had to unlearn as she engaged in research in the context of the university and mainstream Canada. Realizing that she needed particular skills and approaches when she found herself "at the interface of Indigenous and non-Indigenous social realities," Weber-Pillwax used the principles from her own childhood learning and methodology "to find a methodology that was connected with the knowledge systems and historical experiences of mainstream Canada and yet could be grounded in the historical and contemporary realities of northern Cree communities in Alberta. That was PAR." Committed to the potential power of PAR, she recognizes the unpredictability of what will emerge from opening up and facilitating a process that is genuinely transformative, in which one is truly alive.

This piece, like others in the book, points to the power of the collective, holistic nature of PAR. Interweaving PAR with indigenous research, she elevates its essence in a beautiful expression of the power of experience: "Indigenous people tend to see all lived experience as sacred since the human is a sacred being, and it is impossible to isolate identity from lived experience."

Weber-Pillwax ends the chapter with a reference to a conversation her father had with her. He tells her how important the experience of fishing in a particular way ("to go out on the lake to pull the net") is for the children -- and the importance for them to experience it over and over again, which has a different impact from anything that could be said to them. As she notes, "Transformation is carried by intentions and commitment, and commitment includes emotions as well as intentions."

A number of case studies in the book's second section raise questions about the potential co-optation or distortion of the PAR process. Barua, for example, describes how NGOs in rural Bangladesh, often working with Western donors in pursuit of a neo-liberal agenda, have co-opted a process that is supposed to be participatory, resulting in exploitation and competition and ultimately ill-serving the people they claim to be working with. Walsh details the struggle to resist neo-liberal agendas that promote privatization and debilitate communities in post-apartheid South Africa. Growing out of his work with street kids in Salavador be Bahia, Brazil, Veissiere thoughtfully reflects upon the "politics and dangers of imagining, articulating, and facilitating conscientização on other people's behalf."

Each of these essays, as well as others, not only describes the conditions and challenges, but imagines and re-imagines what a different process could look like. In many instances, this metamorphosis is already in motion.

The articles in this book (and some of them more deeply than others) exhibit a sensitivity to the challenges of, and commitment to, being true to the potentially profound meaning of PAR. This inspiring book will enrich the thinking, envisioning, imagining, and future action of anyone engaged with PAR or any form of organizing for justice. It is a gem.

The original book review is in the "Development Review" of National Academy for Planning and Development, Volume 21, 2011, Ministry of Planning, Dhaka, Bangladesh