Universities are not alone in producing knowledge. Community and social activists produce knowledge, for example, in the process of acting on the world around them. The propositional knowledge generated in the academy is very important: a systematised form of knowledge based on many years of study, analysis and validated methods. However, experiential knowledge is also extremely valuable: a non-systematised learning from everyday life which guides many people in their understanding and analysis of the world and builds the grounds upon which they act in it.
Indeed, in the social sciences, academics often gain their most original insights from ethnographic observation of everyday lives. This initiative, in fact, builds strongly on my own experience in learning about Latin America from its social and political activists, often illiterate autodidacts whose wisdom has taught me a huge amount about ‘taking part’ in a world built on multiple exclusions. Today, a number of social movements in Latin America have set up their own universities, inviting the world to learn from them.
Bringing these knowledges together is part of the aim of the Community University, set up in May 2013 by the International Centre for Participation Studies (ICPS) in Bradford University’s Peace Studies department, with a grant from the Economic and Social Science Research Council (ESRC) and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. This is a year long experiment in knowledge exchange and co-production, aimed at exploring what knowledge for change emerges when academics and community participants try to learn from each other.
The Community University grew out of a previous study on Power in the Community (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council AHRC) in which a series of Power Talks with community activists revealed the kind of power they are comfortable with and the kind of power they reject. The former can be summed up in the words they used: ‘cooperating, sharing, listening and enabling others’. I call this power ‘non-dominating’.
The power they reject is the kind of power exercised by the ‘powerful’. This dominating form of power is associated with the world they are trying to change, and it was for them a ‘hot potato’ that if they ever held would have to be handed on very quickly. They hated the thought that the people they worked with would associate them with the ‘powerful’ and with ‘dominating power’. Many saw their contribution to change as about ‘ripples’ and ‘drips’, and preferred to remain on the margins where they would not have to enter the world of the ‘powerful’ and all the contradictions it generated. The study raised the proposition: ‘how can non-dominating power be more effective without reproducing dominating power?’
It was with these activists that we co-designed the ‘Community University’ to study ‘power’ and ‘participation’ further and together. We have evening sessions, field trips and we started off with a residential in Northern College, itself a space for rethinking knowledge and power.
Our first evening session took place with a visit to a community garden which two of the participants were helping to develop and then moved to a nearby community centre. Our community participants are a range of people involved in different kinds of action for change. A few have been to university, others have never had such an opportunity.
We academics have had to reflect critically about the language and assumptions we make and how truly ready we are to critique our own knowledge without abandoning the value of systematic study. We have had to respect the rhythm of life and everyday burdens upon people whose lives are not structured by professional demands but rather by surviving in a world where your control over what happens to you is limited and constrained by the power of others.
While some aspire to ‘big’ political change, others are concerned with the local and the proximate. Academics have to accept that what we hope resonates and opens up horizons, may not. But the main point is that we have to learn and question ourselves if co-production is to have any meaning. In the process, the aspiration is that the knowledge we produce together will connect the varied worlds we inhabit and enhance the possibility that whatever emerges gives us all new tools for addressing dominating power and extending the boundaries of social action. Academics are reminded that we are also citizens. Community activists are introduced to forms of knowledge that might enable them to gain greater traction on the world and a greater sense of agency.
We are supported in this process by people who have a foot in academia and a foot in communities, and who can bridge the worlds. It is important to note the vital role played by this bridging, necessary due to the distances which have grown between them. We are also working with creative artists, because creativity becomes another component that bridges the world of rationality and that of lived experience, something which enables academics and community participants to think beyond what we think we know.
In turn, we produce new knowledge, not predetermined knowledge, banked as Paulo Freire would put it, into the participants by the knowing experts. Rather, knowledge which emerges from a process of encounter between knowledges, and whose validity depends ultimately on its relevance to the lives and agendas for change of knowing participants and their communities.
This contribution has been commissioned for an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and Participation Now, a project that aims to support exploration, innovation and debate about contemporary forms of participatory public engagement. Participation Now is an Open University project supported by OpenLearn, the Creating Publics project in the Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance, and the RCUK-funded Public Engagement with Research Catalyst project. Explore the initiatives here.