Finding hope and healing through community-engaged research

December 08, 2021

This blog is authored by Belen Febres-Cordero.

I have known that my academic interests are intricately connected to the rest of my life for quite a while. I watched my father live the connections between his work and life from a young age. I vividly remember when my dad, a doctor, had to leave my 12th birthday party to treat a girl my age who was having complications from her leukemia. A few days later, I saw him crying when she died. I swore to myself I would never work on anything related to health. Somewhere along the line, I changed my mind, and I am glad I did. Not only because of the contributions that I hope to make, but also because I am not sure how I would  have survived my last years without it.

The fieldwork that I conducted over nine months between 2019 and 2021 made the link between academia and the rest of my life tighter and more obvious than ever. My doctoral study builds from the consideration that, while useful, the current definition of health as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’ offered by the World Health Organization might leave little space for contemplating how wellbeing may manifest itself even in the presence of limiting factors that make such a state of complete wellbeing difficult or impossible to achieve. Hence, it asks if wellbeing might present itself even under adverse conditions in ways that are currently unrecognized by existing theories, and if these alternative expressions of wellbeing can help identify and address structural determinants of health. To answer these research questions, I collaborated with 50 women who have migrated from rural parts of Ecuador to Quito, the country’s capital city, and with local community media, to explore and share women’s sensations of wellbeing in the context of migration, and to collectively consider their relation to the structural factors shaping their health as a group. 

In October 2019, I traveled from Vancouver, BC where I have lived for the past ten years, to Quito, my birth city, to conduct fieldwork. Shortly after I arrived, my dad was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Since then, I have lived on an intense roller coaster of confusion, disbelief, grief, gratitude and debilitating fear. It has been the most difficult and profound experience I have ever had, and I have never felt so unbelievably raw, human, shattered, vulnerable and, surprisingly, also powerful and alive.

I conducted some of the interviews for my project between sobs and hospital visits. The interactions that I had with the women I was talking to in those moments gifted me with small pockets of normalcy in times when anything resembling routine or familiarity seemed impossible, while their stories gave me infinitely more answers than the ones I was looking for. I almost never told the women what I was going through, as I wanted to be careful not to overshadow their experiences with mine. Yet, the vulnerability and knowledge that each one of them shared supported me without them knowing.

Their descriptions of what wellbeing under adverse conditions might feel like in their lives helped me find some in mine. When they related wellbeing to having company, I tried talking to a friend; when they said that wellbeing felt like soil under their bare feet, I went for a walk in the woods; and when they described finding meaning in their work, I scheduled one more interview. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit us all.  The interviews had to stop.

The interactions that I had with the women I was talking to in those moments gifted me with small pockets of normalcy in times when anything resembling routine or familiarity seemed impossible, while their stories gave me infinitely more answers than the ones I was looking for.

After months of quarantine, I returned to Canada where, again, I found in the accounts shared by the women that I interviewed the ability to deal with the pain of the separation and the longing that I felt. And when my mother-in-law was also diagnosed with cancer and died after just a few months following my return, I found in participants’ words the strength to be with her in her last days, and to support my family and myself once she passed:

Time is cyclical, it is always going away, and it is always returning. We, along with everything else, are part of that process. When we are born, we come from earth. We are formed by earth, and we have the four elements within us. When we die, we just return to that state. It is just the part of the cycle, and the cycle never ends. Your body becomes earth again and it turns into the origin of new life.  A tree grows from there, and a bird lives in that tree, so in a way, you become part of that tree and that bird. How could that be sad? Death is a beautiful transition. You do not disappear; you just start living everywhere.

I type these words expressed by Killari, one of the women I interviewed, while the chirps of a sparrow at my window makes me think of my mother-in-law and smile.

As I review, code and analyze my interview transcripts, memories of the past months come up. They are woven in-between the lines. This drives me to consider that to be self-reflexive in community-engaged work, we do not only need to question the effect that we have in the people with whom we interact, and the power dynamics present in our research encounters. We could also think critically about how the relationships that we build with participants change us as researchers and enrich our lives in multiple ways.

Doing so has deepened even more the profound gratitude, respect, and admiration that I feel towards each person I met with during fieldwork. It has also led me to realize that research is not only an intellectual endeavor, but also an opportunity to connect and embark on a mutual process to discover in others’ stories, in others’ experiences, in others’ knowledge(s), in others’ company, and in others’ worlds and words the answers that I could never find alone.

Belen Febres-Cordero is a PhD candidate in SFU’s School of Communication, where she aims to co-create participatory spaces for self-representation and social change through her research. She was a fellow in SFU CERi’s Graduate Fellowship Program in 2020/21. 

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