21 Jun 2016

In Conversation with Dr. Max Liboiron



Community Engagement for Social Change

What kind of work do you do?
I’m an activist and academic, so I do a lot of my social change work through research and teaching. I run a feminist biology and technology laboratory (https://civiclaboratory.nl/), where we infuse everything we do, from choosing research projects to building scientific instruments, with the values of equity and justice. Most of our research projects focus on contaminants in local environments and food webs, where we work with, for, or alongside community members and organizations. I’ve also been part of national and international activist campaigns around the eradication of environmental science in Canada, accessibility to higher education, Indigenous and Aboriginal rights, and wealth inequity. Most of this involved direct action. Now I’m in a phase of my career as an activist where I work on social change through research and institutional change via community engagement, largely because of a recent change in where I live and what communities I’m part of.

What does community engagement involve?
Dr. Max Liboiron
A lot of different activities get called “community engagement,” from presenting your research to public audiences on the radio (where you don’t interact with members of the public at all), to living and working in your own community to change policy (where the stakes are very high). I think it’s fine that all of these activities are called community engagement, so long as the researcher is clear about the relationship she has with communities, including the stakes and ethics of those relationships. I think good—by which I mean ethical—community engagement is about minding those relationships, and making relations more important than the results of research.
So community engagement involves articulating and maintaining relationships so they are ethical: reciprocal, beneficial, equitable, and/or informed.

How can young people working towards social change meaningfully engage the community?
Social change always comes from organization through collectives. These collectives can be in person and local, or online and distributed, but no one has ever moved a mountain by themselves. I think organizing, and learning about different ways to organize, is the first step in making social change. Leadership, for example, is only one way to organize groups (and I would argue often not the best way, since it’s individualized and places a lot of power and stress in one place). Social change –changing relations—is different than little tweaks to reform a social system, and requires understanding the social relations that already exist. You can start that by organizing. And then you can change them by organizing.

What is the best way to engage the community without seemingly patronizing the members?
Being a member of the community is the most straightforward way, as is facilitating rather than leading engagement. I think valuing and making space for the self-determination of groups you work with is important. They can want things you don’t want, have different ideas of what is important and successful, and you are responsible to those ideas. The only way to start that is to listen for a long time before you speak. This assumes you have a long-term project. If you don’t, then I would include community members as voting or central members of planning groups and I would pay them for their time as expert consultants.

How can we determine if our engagement with the community is impactful?
That’s a great question. A lot of community projects from academia don’t check to see if what they did worked—just doing a public engagement project is thought to be inherently good. There are some good resources for thinking about how to articulate what you want to change, and how to tell if that change happened (see below). For example, if you are trying to change a policy conversation so that points of view from a local community are taken into account and you organize a public forum and report on that forum, you can see if the forum is referenced in later policy decisions or testimonies, whether the community is included in future government plans, etc. It gets harder to tell if you’ve changed culture or changed minds, but there are ways to investigate that as well. The most important thing here is that identifying change is not intuitive—you have to sit down and think about what you’re trying to change and how you’re going to be able to see if that happens.

How can we measure this impact?
It depends on what you’re trying to change. This is a whole area of research. I recommend the following resources:

Brisolara, S., Seigart, D., & SenGupta, S. (Eds.). (2014). Feminist evaluation and research: theory and practice. Guilford Publications.

Steven Teles & Mark Schmitt, The Elusive Craft of Evaluating Advocacy, Stanford Social Innovation Rev. (2011)


What are some of the challenges that the youth can expect in the process of community engagement? How can they address these challenges?
Communities are heterogeneous groups where people will have different ideas, values, and goals. This makes it hard to engage an entire community on common grounds. There are ways to organize and make decisions with diverse view points (like the consensus conference format), but it isn’t easy to do the first few times. It’s especially difficult to talk across difference. People spend their entire lives trying to do this, so it’s not just a challenge for youth!
It can also be discouraging because systemic change takes a long time to effect and even to see, so setting small goals is important. At the same time, join larger movements and groups, since that is a good way to scale up.  
Finally, collaboration is its own challenge. Working with others is a skill that takes time to develop. Most, though certainly not all, youth are doing all these things for the first time. Be kind to yourself and your peers as you learn. Take breaks. Celebrate small victories. The advantage of organizing as youth is that while youth don’t hold a lot of power, they do hold a lot of charisma and an organized group of young people can hold an audience in a special way.

How can youth handle existing power dynamics in the community that are likely to influence their relationship with the community?
Every community is going to be different. There are two kinds of power dynamics to look out for. First, and most obviously, there are external power relations, where the different distribution of resources and influence can impact relationships—relationships with your boss, your mother, your mayor, your friends.  Because these relations are fairly clear, you can often plan out ways to engage that respect those dynamics (work to make change within the constrains of those influences). You can also choose to stress or break them. Working with others, you’ll usually be able to see these dynamics coming and have time to plan for them.
The second kind of power dynamic is internal and much harder to see. This includes the values and assumptions about what is right and good and true that underlie how people think and interact: it is what seems normal. If you’re trying to make significant social change, these are the ingrained dynamics you are going to come up against, both within yourself, your group, and the wider community. Usually I work with a trusted elder or two to help me anticipate, identify, and navigate these ones. 

What are some of the tools that would come in handy while engaging the community?
First and foremost, your peers. Secondly, a trusted elder or two.

After that, there are lots of tools developed by organizations to help with planning, messaging, holding forums and carrying out plans, and other activities. Here are a few good ones (most of these are American because of my history doing activism in the United States, and are all in English—this is not a complete list at all):

The Youth Activist’s Toolkit: This is produced by the Washington, DC based Advocates for Youth, which focuses on improving sexual health for young people, but the toolkit itself can be used for much more. It opens with general organizing information for youth activists. There's information about activist planning, definitions of organizing, and a focus on inspiration alongside strategies for action.

A Toolkit for Participatory Action Research from the Community Development Project: Research for Organizing created this toolkit for groups and individuals that want to use participatory action research (PAR) to support their work towards social justice. Research is only one way to engage a community around issues of change, but the process as well as the research results can help achieve this goal.

Tools for Change: This project is based in Toronto, Canada, and is a coalition of smaller groups that offer trainings on skills for advocating for social change. They have a good collection of resources if you aren’t local.

How can we ensure we do not adopt an extractive approach while engaging the community?
An extractive approach to community engagement, or sometimes called the parachute approach, is when you pop into a community, do your work, and then leave again, taking resources and knowledge with you. This is very common with academic and research-based community engagement, which is where I have the most experience. Extraction is much less likely to happen if you are part of the community you’re working with. Generally, I wouldn’t do community engagement with any group you are not already familiar with and part of in some way. There is a tribal ethics research board in the eastern United States that requires researchers to visit regularly for a minimum of two years (and preferably four) before they can work with the community. Some Indigenous knowledge workers call this a “methodology of visiting,” where you have to keep showing up, over and over, before and “after” research, as an ethical way to learn and engage with communities. This makes extraction difficult, because you never really leave.
You can also set up engagement so all resources and benefits fall to the community. For a researcher, this means that they own the data and the tools, and have the right to refuse that any gathered knowledge leave the community. If you aren’t willing to work on those terms, then you’re expecting to extract some kind of value. This isn’t inherently bad, but without explicit and concrete ways of ensuring balanced reciprocity, extraction is very possible, especially in research-based community engagement.

Any other remarks for the youth out there:
Activism is a life-long occupation. When you are not doing activism, you’re still an activist. Burn out is one of the most common problems I see with young change makers because they feel that if they aren’t engaged in a campaign, then they aren’t doing justice work. Taking breaks and charging up with whatever inspires you to make the world a better place--working on the land, making art or music, spending time with friends and family—is crucial to change work. Those breaks might be for days or for years, but they are part of the cycle of social change work.
Also, change happens at a variety of scales. I used to think that if we weren’t overthrowing systems and moving mountains, we were wasting our time. As I’ve grown older (and listened to my elders), I’ve come to realize that while small changes in individual lives or even moments in someone’s life don’t change entire systems, they do improve quality of life. And that matters. We have to survive together on the ground while we make large scale changes, so making life as good as possible in the meantime is also valuable work.

What inspires your work?
I’m motivated by the immense sacrifices and losses of my family members while we grew up in a community I once heard described as “a rough place for the devil.” I’m incredibly lucky to be where I am now—educated, employed, safe, healthy—and that enables me to dedicate my energy to changing the systems that required so many sacrifices of the people I grew up with. That’s what motivates my work. Inspiration comes from watching plants grow (slow and steady and always amazing), sharing jokes (the beautiful and surprising structures underlying humour and play), and the love of my friends and kin.

 Dr. Max Liboiron is a scholar, activist, and artist. She is an Assistant Professor in Sociology, Geography, and Environmental Sciences at Memorial University of Newfoundland.