Breaking down Barriers and Building Bridges: A community approach to research

Teona Williams, 2016 Fellow

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If it is inaccessible to the poor, it is neither radical nor revolutionary. Those are the words that proudly cover my Facebook timeline photo. I start with this because I have always seen myself as a “woke” academic. For those of you unaware of that terminology, “woke” refers to a person who is aware of inequalities and inequities that happen all the time in the world, and works to dismantle them. Being a “woke” academic allowed me to engage in my first passion, historical research, while still feeling directly engaged in my own community of S.E Washington D.C. In essence, I could spend all day in the National Archives, and all night protesting gentrification in my neighborhood. Being a “woke” academic also allowed me to avoid the negative connotations rightly placed on academic research. In Decolonizing Methodologies by Linda Tuhiwai SmithI learned how research as currently practiced today has legacies of exploitation among marginalized groups. As a proud African American woman from one of those low income communities that to some would be a perfect sociological experiment, I could avoid all the pitfalls associated with academic research because I was aware of those issues. 

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Enter my work with the Environmental Fellows Program. I was placed in Flint, Michigan during the aftermath of the turbulent water crisis, which the city will be dealing with for decades to come. I was an outsider in every sense of the word. I was not from Flint or Michigan. I attend an elitist institution that many Flint residents will not have the opportunity to attend, a lesson I learned painfully at one of the community events I attended. In my mind this was all okay because: I had an environmental justice background; I was “woke”; I was from a similar community. These elements of my identity shielded me from a truth I denied in myself for years: that I was trained as a “formal” academic. I was cultivated in the Ivory Tower. I am ashamed to admit this out loud, but I used jargon.

 It wasn’t until I was held accountable to a community that I really had to start wrestling with my own privilege. In academia our work is judged by institutions, it rarely is judged by the people we research. We produce to get into major publications and conferences. While the issues we highlight are important for the world to see, rarely do we have to return to that community to start working on solutions. In this community I was out of my element. I was sitting in a meeting with two Flint residents presenting my proposal, spewing out my jargon, ready to receive a standing ovation for how articulate I sounded or compliments on my well thought out proposal. Instead I received question after question, challenge after challenge. I was pushed to think in new ways. I knew whatever I produced could not be for my own gain, it had to be for the neighborhoods who would use it.

Rarely, as academics, do we have to go back to that community we spent so much time “working with” to help move beyond having a dialogue about the issues and working to find solutions.

 This project is for the community based organization that went out of their way to help me connect to residents. It is for the woman who told my friend she wanted to take her “babies” to the park, but she didn’t feel safe. It is for the grandma who told me she tries to organize trips to take her grandkids up north to swim because the water in Flint is dirty. It is for the single mother who spent 25 minutes diligently completing my survey, because she was going back to school for urban planning, and thought park development is so crucial to a neighborhood.

 My research was not my research; I was merely a vessel who had been “trained” to do it. The data and the project belongs to the neighborhoods. It was a very humbling and introspective moment for me. I realized very quickly how ingrained I was in the Ivory Tower, and how insecure I feel about my own place as an academic. I realized that I rely on jargon and theories, because I want to present myself as a “credible” researcher. I don’t want people to hear the “poverty” in my own voice. During my undergraduate years, I was immediately forced to do more than code switch, I had to assimilate so people would look at me and not see an affirmative action baby.

 Having the privilege to be accountable to a community helped me realize that I never had anything to be ashamed of. My upbringing is my strength. Doing research with a community versus for a community is my passion, and jargon is left best for those journals no one ever reads. I want the world to read and understand my work, because it is not my research, it is for my community, my family, my people.

 This blog post is dedicated to the 100 or so residents that my team and I had the honor to speak with, and for the community organizations that took the time to nurture me this summer.

Teona Williams is a second-year Master's degree student at the School of Natural Resources and Environment. Her field of study is Environmental Justice, where she researches the nexus of race, class, gender, and nature. Her master thesis focuses on African American university students' attitudes towards outdoor recreation. After graduation, she plans to pursue a PhD in environmental history in which she hopes to focus on race and protected areas. Before moving to Michigan, Teona spent two and half years working at The Pew Charitable Trusts as a Communications Assistant in their international environment program. She is also a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship alum. As a Watson Fellow, she received funding to conduct research in India, South Africa, and the Caribbean for a year.