Activists and scholars often have a tough time working together. One way to make it easier is by deciding the rules of the game ahead of time. Some partnerships formalize these agreements into “Principles of Collaboration” documents. The idea is that if everyone knows what is expected of them ahead of time, problems are less likely to come up.
I used these documents as a key part of a guest lecture I gave recently in an environmental justice class. I started out with a Daily Show clip to get the conversation rolling (see my post on the clip here). We talked about the tensions between environmentalists and environmental justice activists, and then segued into discussing the similar tensions between environmental justice activists and scholars.
After the “problems” conversation we talked about “solutions.” I described how I’ve navigated the scholar/activist divide in my project 25 Stories from the Central Valley (see also here). I also described the San Joaquin Valley Cumulative Health Impacts Project. This activist-scholar partnership resulted in maps that document the many toxins that San Joaquin Valley residents are exposed to, together with demographic data on their “social vulnerability.” I showed the students the project’s “Principles of Collaboration” documents (see here and here), and we read through a few of their specific agreements to see how they protected both the activists and the scholars.
The students were going to be working in groups on service-learning projects to support local environmental justice organizations. I wanted them to think more about collaboration by creating their own documents to guide their group-work (the professor had already worked out the details of the partnership between the students and the environmental justice organizations ahead of time). I adapted an activity I learned from another organization for the purpose – you can download my version here. The students interview each other about their best experiences with group work, categorize these experiences, and then turn them into a contract to guide their work together. When I facilitated this activity for the first time in a previous job, I was paired with a high-school student for the interview. It was great to get to reflect on things that have actually gone well in my experiences with group work, and to think about how to make them more likely to happen again.
As it turns out, we only had enough time for the students to do the interviewing part of the activity. I was going to come back during the next class period to guide them through the rest, but got sick and had to cancel at the last minute (sorry Flora!). So, I haven’t tested the whole activity in this particular context. If you give it a try, let me know how it goes!
More about the San Joaquin Valley Cumulative Health Impacts Project:
- Blog post by Rebecca Plevin
- Powerpoint presentation by Jonathan London, Ganlin Huang and Mike Wells
- Scholarly paper by Ganlin Huang and Jonathan London
- Resources on participatory action research from Community Forestry and Environmental Research Partnerships
- My post on advice for working with environmental justice groups
- Other organizations and projects listed under “Connecting Campus and Community” on my links page.