«Keywords: feminist methodology, feminist oral history, critical Indigenous theory, forced migration, queer studies, LGBT refugees Copyright by ...»
As a PhD candidate in a large Canadian university, I am confronted with the institutional pressure of finishing my dissertation, publishing academic articles, and working in a very hierarchical and highly competitive academic environment. I am fortunate enough to have a committee made up of feminist researchers who work closely with various communities around the world as activists and academics for social justice. I am also very lucky to be in a program that emphasizes feminist and anti-oppressive research. Yet even in this positive feminist environment I am faced with institutional pressures of a tight timeline, limited funding, and a competitive job environment. These pressures create a significant amount of constraint in terms of collaboration between the participants and myself. Funding is not provided to researchers to engage with communities over a lengthy period of time in order to develop the trust and confidence necessary to form ethical collaborative relationships. Fieldwork is meant to last only a year, and you are expected to finish your dissertation within the following year. During this time, you are expected to apply for grants and publish academic articles. There is no time, let alone sufficient resources, to engage in other forms of knowledge production and activism. I would often hear from PhD students who got reprimanded by their supervisors because they spent too much time being an activist and not enough time being an academic.
Many researchers doing social-justice work with marginalized communities share the same pressures I experience. The intense and competitive economic atmosphere of higher education has meant that academics must sacrifice valuable time and energy they might dedicate to local communities in order to keep being able to produce a high quantity of academic work and remain eligible for research grants. The work of these academics can both directly and indirectly benefit marginalized populations by confronting social and historical injustice, reforming policy, and creating greater public awareness. However, the neoliberal capitalist educational market forces academics to choose between their role as locally involved community activists and remaining employed in academia. One simply does not have time or capacity for both.
Through my own experience of trying to move forward in my work, I find a great amount of moral support in critical Indigenous theory and works by critical Indigenous writers. Critical Indigenous theory argues for the necessity of time to be devoted to collaboration in order for it to be empowering and nonexploitative.
This time of listening, learning, and sharing experiences and knowledge allows individuals to not only understand one another but create opportunities for collaboration that go beyond Western and imperial institutions and knowledge structures. Empowering collaboration between Indigenous communities and non-Indigenous researchers can allow for interpretative authority to be used for shared and, at times, different purposes on both sides of the research. An example of this can be found in Leslie Robertson’s oral history work with members of the Kwagu’l Gixsam clan on their grandmother, and historically controversial figure, Jane Constance Cook. Robertson was invited by Jane Cook’s descendants to help situate Cook’s story within “particular historical contexts, cultural analyses, and their own family history” (Robertson and Kwagu’l Gixsam Clan 2012, 12). By gathering oral histories from elders, traveling to look at archival records, and collecting family artifacts, members of the Kwagu’l Gixsam clan worked together with Robertson to present a balanced conversation about Cook’s life. Constant dialogue between the participants and Journal of Feminist Scholarship 10 (Spring 2016) Robertson, which included as well interested family and community members, was a key aspect to this project as they balanced “academically positioned and community positioned narratives” to deconstruct and reconstruct the story of Jane Cook. Robertson writes that “members of all societies understand that history making requires acts of interpretation and documentation that generate powerful images for present reflection” (Robertson and Kwagu’l Gixsam Clan 2012, 12).
As the historian and ethnographer in charge of writing the book, Robertson held the interpretative authority of rendering all the various collaborators’ contributions and articulations of the past in telling Cook’s story. Throughout the text, many family members contributed written sections, footnotes, captions, and coanalysis with Robertson of Kwakawaka’wakw history. Robertson interspersed the documented history of Jane Cook and members of the Kwagu’l Gixsam clan with her ethnographic observations of important ceremonies and recorded conversations between family members. Because of the constant dialogue between the family members and herself, Robertson was not hindered in her interpretations of the collected historical material. As each chapter was finished and sent to the family members, engaging conversations between Robertson and them would ensue. What came out of this was a multivocal project that brought understanding to the ways in which particular “individuals represent themselves to themselves in history” and how that knowledge was brought forth through communal ‘namala relationships in the Kwagu’l Gixsam community (Robertson and Kwagu’l Gixsam Clan 2012, 12). The finished product becomes not just a historical account of Jane Cook but a multilayered discussion on the politics of memory, custom, state and Indigenous politics, and collaborative research.
Robertson’s work along with other critical Indigenous works provided me the moral support to take the time to get involved with the larger LGBT refugee community through my work at Rainbow Refugee and collaborating with my participants and other members of the LGBT refugee community on various public art projects and public events. When I first talked about collaboration and what it would entail with my participants, I was ready to hear their suggestions and work with them through the entire duration of the project. I had already written in my research proposal that I would give the participants a copy of the transcripts and that they would get final approval of each transcript. I offered them the opportunity to read and provide feedback on drafts of my dissertation, and told them their feedback would be incorporated into the finished dissertation. When we first met to talk about the research and their participation, I talked about what I hoped to produce from this project, namely my dissertation and possibly an academic article and/or a policy report. I provided them with copies of an article previously published on LGBT refugees by Sharalyn Jordan (2009), as well as a policy report on housing and refugee migration in Vancouver (Francis 2010), so that they would have an example of what I was intending to produce from my research.
In that first meeting and in subsequent meetings, we talked about what the participants wanted from the research and how they would like us to collaborate in carrying it out. They appreciated that they had final approval of the transcript and could provide feedback on the dissertation. For some of the participants, that was the extent of the involvement they wished to have in the project. Others wanted to keep meeting and talking about my research as it was coming along. Collaboration for them meant an ongoing conversation.
It meant meeting over coffee, catching up with one another, and talking about the project. It allowed greater control of interpretative authority for the participants, as they could check back in with me and my work. These conversations over coffee became some of the most valuable research experiences I had. They informed my analysis to a great extent and ultimately allowed for a much richer result. Talking over and over again with the participants encouraged me to distribute the knowledge being produced in this research through alternative, nonacademic creative means. In the summer of 2014, I collaborated with participants Journal of Feminist Scholarship 10 (Spring 2016) and others in the creation of a public mural that depicted the images and voices of LGBT refugees. In addition to the mural, I hosted a series of informational and artistic events on the violence of borders and the increasing restrictions of the asylum process in Canada for LGBT refugees. At these events, I invited LGBTQ refugees to speak and share their personal experiences. Several of the event participants were later interviewed by local journalists and invited by city officials to talk to them directly about the challenges LGBT refugees were facing in Vancouver.
These experiences were incredibly valuable. They allowed me to engage with the participants on a deeper level and provided more opportunities to share our different interpretative authority over the knowledge produced. It was in these multiple conversations that our differences in experience and social positioning were continuously confronted as we discussed our viewpoints and analysis of the research.
Critical Indigenous scholars argue that empowering collaborative work between settler and Indigenous agents can be achieved, but it requires a reframing of the field in which researchers actively decenter the “Western academy as the exclusive locus of authorizing power that defines the research agenda” (Swadener and Mutua 2008, 38). By doing this, the validity of the research is defined, reconstituted, and reauthored by the power of the margins. The strategy calls on the researcher and the participant to rework the “hyphen” between colonizer-colonized, settler-aboriginal, non-Indigenous and Indigenous, majority-minority, and oppressor-oppressed (Jones and Jenkins 2008). Alison Jones and Kuni Jenkins (2008) argue that often the hyphen is softened when researchers seek mutual understanding through cross-cultural engagement, but that by softening the hyphen empathetic collaboration ceases to exist. In trying to gain a shared perspective, structural power differences, as well as other differences in perspective and history, are downplayed.
Instead of being softened, the hyphen should remain nonnegotiable as a positive site for productive and empowering methodological work. The hyphen signifies not only a relationship between collaborating people but also their respective relationship to difference. Much like the critiques of universalism in Western white feminism voiced by critical race and postcolonial feminists, “us” cannot stand in place of the divide, the hyphen, but can only name an “always conditional relationship between” (Jones and Jenkins 2008, 475). In working the hyphen, researchers need to question what they mean by “shared speaking,” in order to not only make room for the voices of others and for learning from them but also recognize the privilege one has in asking for dialogue (Jones and Jenkins 2008, 478). As Jones and Jenkins write, “Indigenous access into the realms of meaning of the dominant Other is hardly required; members of marginalized/ colonized groups are immersed in it daily. It is the colonizer, wishing to hear, who calls for dialogue” (478).
Collaborative research across the hyphen entails the assertion that on some points of the research the Indigenous, colonized, minority, or oppressed will maintain a political and social identity distinct from that of the settler, colonizer, majority, or oppressor subject (Jones and Jenkins 2008, 475).
The challenge of the hyphen is something that needs to be looked at in all feminist oral history projects, whether or not individuals are working with marginalized communities, consider themselves to be minorities, or are working inside or outside their own communities. Marginality is not monolithic, and we all face inequality and oppression intersectionally; within any research, we are working a hyphen in some form. Working the hyphen “suggests hard work—not the work of face-to-face conversation in the name of liberatory practice, but the work of coming to know our own location in the Self-Other binary and accepting the difference marked by the hyphen…. What I learn is not about you, but I learn from you about difference” (Jones and Jenkins 2008, 482–83). In the creation of an oral history, interpretative authority is a joint dialogue between the “selves and roles of interviewee and interviewer within an interactive moment of creation” (Stuart 1993, 81). Working the hyphen requires that the oral historian cannot gain all knowledge Journal of Feminist Scholarship 10 (Spring 2016) but must insist at times on ignorance and a lack of clarity and certainty. Empowering collaboration between the researcher and the participants can be achieved through hard-worked dialogue and commitment to understanding difference.