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Sharing Power, Originating Knowledge with Communities

Disclaimer: Posts are solely the views of the author and do not represent the views of Brandeis University or the Institute for Economic and Racial Equity.

By Alexandra Piñeros Shields, Visiting Associate Professor of the Practice of Racial Equity

Through collective inquiry, the oppressed could make meaning of their sacred texts and the suffering in their lives.

I had never been as excited about having breakfast as that summer. Every morning, I got ready as quickly as I could so I could join Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez (2014 winner of Brandeis’ Gittler Prize) for breakfast in Maryknoll’s large seminary dining hall. We discussed the lecture he had given the previous day and the suffering of the poor which was the topic of his soon-to-be-released book, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent. I was one of the few people who spoke Spanish in the summer Peace and Justice Program on Liberation Theology and we both enjoyed our morning ritual in our native tongue. The year was 1987.  Studying Liberation Theology, arguably the most important Christian movement of the 20th century, with its founder was a formative experience. That summer I also learned with Liberation Theologians from South Africa, India, Hong Kong, and U.S. peace activists, Dan Berrigan, Phil Berrigan, and Liz McAlister. The most important lesson I took with me is that through collective inquiry, Christian base communities or political study circles more broadly, the oppressed could make meaning of their sacred texts and the suffering in their lives. Moreover, I also learned that through meaning-making, the poor create potential for transformative change; change at both the individual and societal levels. Early in my career, Liberation Theology equipped me with an ethical framework for imagining how knowledge could be created from the bottom up and how people’s own knowledge production could advance justice in their communities.

In many ways, the rest of my professional trajectory has been an experiment in how to operationalize that framework. As an adult educator, I adopted Freirean pedagogies that centered learners in the development of curriculum and created relationships between teacher and learner based on mutuality and reciprocity. As a community organizer, I developed mujerista/womanist principles that put people most affected by our systems of mass incarceration in our criminal legal and immigration systems, at the center of decision-making power to dismantle those structures. And when I began to train as a researcher in Heller’s doctoral program, I sought out research models that centered participants as real subjects. In participatory action research (PAR), I found a paradigm that promoted the agency of individuals whom we often called subjects of research but who rarely had true decision-making power in research design, implementation, and analysis.

What is the nature of the power that arises from bottom-up knowledge construction?

After a decade and a half in the field conducting PAR, I have become increasingly interested in the interplay between knowledge construction and power. Some of the questions I am currently engaged with include: when does the construction or generation of knowledge by oppressed communities become power? What is the nature of the power that arises from bottom-up knowledge construction? What are the variables that explain the development of power for individuals engaged in PAR versus the development of power for a community? And where are the limits to the generation of power produced by the PAR paradigm?

In the summer of 2020, a treasure in the form of a puzzle was handed to me. A group of immigrant organizers had met at the beginning of the year to develop a political agenda for their community organizing around immigration reform. At a strategic planning retreat, they decided that their advocacy and organizing goals needed to be based in the experiences undocumented immigrants had during the Trump administration and in the aspirations those individuals held for themselves and their families. Based in that analysis and building towards those goals, the team of organizers, who were themselves either undocumented or with vulnerable immigration statuses, developed what organizers call a Listening Campaign. They decided to hold Listening Sessions (focus groups) across the country. After developing focus group questions, they trained 60 immigrant community organizers in 13 states to conduct focus groups. Leveraging the national network they were a part of, 100 focus groups were conducted in which over 700 undocumented immigrants participated. Given COVID, the trainings and focus groups were on zoom. All the data from focus groups was uploaded to an online platform. That’s when they approached me. While they were happy at the amount of data they had collected, they were also overwhelmed and unsure how to proceed. They wanted guidance on how to analyze the data.

After a long meeting in which they answered my many questions, it became apparent that their design had rigor and could be considered PAR, and in particular, community-driven PAR. I began by training them in the PAR paradigm because I wanted them to understand themselves as researchers – for what they had already accomplished and for the task ahead – making meaning from the data. The fact that PAR was developed by Colombian sociologist Orlando Fals Borda was not lost on these Latin American immigrants. We spent a couple of months analyzing the data. The results were powerful.

By holding a national press conference, they demonstrated a new systematic way to develop policy claims rather than only relying on “inside the beltway” policy wonks.

What kind of power did they create? By holding a national press conference where representatives from other leading national immigrant rights organizations and coalitions served as respondents to the research findings, they demonstrated a new systematic way to develop policy claims rather than only relying on “inside the beltway” policy wonks. One of these national organizations asked them for training on how to conduct PAR. To their national network, they demonstrated the ability to initiate and conduct rigorous research and inspired a new listening campaign using PAR to develop the network’s political agenda. Almost 10,000 people participated in that Season of Listening in 15 states during 2021. At the individual level, one co-researcher started making plans to enter a PhD program in spite of his vulnerable immigration status. He took the first step by joining my class in the MPP program and is now in a Master’s in Public Health program focusing on migrant farm worker health inequities.

Together with this immigrant student co-researcher, we are exploring epistemological questions focused on how knowledge can be constructed without academic partnerships and when those partnerships are necessary. Many questions remain. What I am sure of is that we move closer to an ethic of liberation when oppressed people are making meaning of their pain AND identifying the policies necessary to address and reimagine our society.

Over time, I have become less focused on particular policies. There will always be a new policy to be fixed, reformed, or dismantled. I am interested in developing methods through which oppressed people develop and step into their own power. I want to contribute to the body of literature and the arsenal of tools that enable people to take power and transform their own reality. Like the old adage about teaching people how to fish, I want to teach people how to catch their own power.

Alexandra Piñeros Shields, Visiting Associate Professor of the Practice of Racial Equity