Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 172: Critical Community Engaged Scholarship — with Liz Jackson

Speakers: Kathy Feng, Am Johal, Liz Jackson

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Kathy Feng  0:00
Hi, I’m Kathy Feng with Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. On this episode of Below the Radar, our host Am Johal discusses the work of the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute with our guest Liz Jackson. I hope you enjoy!

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Am Johal  0:21 
Hello, thank you so much for joining us again this week on Below the Radar. Delighted that you could join us. And we're really lucky to have a special guest this week. Liz Jackson is joining us from the University of Guelph and many, many other things. Welcome, Liz.

Liz Jackson  0:42 
Thank you so much, Am. Good to see you.

Am Johal  0:44 
Liz. I'm wondering if we can begin with you introducing yourself a little bit.

Liz Jackson  0:49
Sure. So, I'm Liz Jackson. I was born and raised in Scarborough, Ontario, back when it was its own city, it's now considered a suburb of Toronto, but it was a really lovely and culturally rich place for me to grow up. I'm the child of immigrant settlers, my mom's Irish and my dad's English. And that affected my growing up in an interesting way because I started my life feeling very strongly that I was a first gen sort of child of immigrants that I really held on to that identity. And then as I grew up, I realized how very differently my path kind of was smoothed for me then for my other friends who were also children of immigrants, racialized immigrants or, you know, non-English speakers. So, I say all this because I think that my journey to this work is very much informed by my slow awakening to my own privilege and the injustices that were naturalized around me. And so now I live in Hamilton, on Dish with One Spoon Wampum land, which is a treaty between the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabeg, an agreement made in 1701, I think, to share and care for the land and beings around the Great Lakes. Take what you need and leave some for others. And, you know, I very much simplified a very complex political agreement but I find that a very inspiring and humbling way to think about myself as a person who was not invited here, and about the kind of context in which I seek to have positive impacts in the world.

Am Johal  2:11 
Liz, you know, we've met through various colleagues in terms of the work around community engaged scholarship, community engaged research, it's a great number of colleagues across the country. But I'm interested in sort of your story prior to you arriving with the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute at the University of Guelph, what were you doing before that that led you into the work that you're doing now?

Liz Jackson  2:35 
Yeah, I like the question. Thank you. I always say that I've had a really wandering path to this work, but through the logic of how I think about the world is quite a straight line, in a way. So, I was talking a bit about my kind of slow awakening to my relationship and complicity in systems of oppression, I suppose. And privilege. And I think that shaped what I chose to do with my time and with my studies in very interesting, interesting to me, ways. So, you know, my first job other than teaching piano and blowing up balloons was the tiny little non-profit and environmental non-profit where we did public education and advocacy, and helped, we were part of the group that helped to create the Rouge Park in East Toronto. So, I kind of did organize-y activist type work, both for passion and for profit. At the same time, as I was studying critical theory and literature in my undergrad, went on to do a master's degree where I learned a lot about critical and radical pedagogies. And so, I started to think of universities and systems of education, both in terms of the ways in which they kind of you know, replicate and rectify systemic crap, sorry, systemic, you know, inequities. And as sites of, you know, as bell hooks talks about, and others, as sites of possibility and hope. And so that's what I decided I want to do with my life, I want to be in these places where I feel great energy and company. And I have skills that fit well in academic contexts. And I don't want to just do what perhaps expected or easy in these contexts. I want to work with and for justice seeking communities.

Liz Jackson  4:09 
So that decision was made quite early. I then went on and did a PhD that shifted ground a little bit. So, I stayed in English, which I had been in the whole time, English and Cultural Studies, and I decided to really hold on to two questions, one about what I then called Academic Activism. So how do we use our scholarly work as a force aligned with amplifying, working with other forms of activism, a change seeking, and also, I was very, and remained very interested in stories and how they shape class in our world. So, I did a thesis about the politics and implications of political representation of historical trauma and injustice. And through that, I came to a lot of Indigenous theory and philosophy around stories and the ways they shape world and what knowledge is and isn't. And so, I have always kind of echoing in the back of my head, the concept that I learned through the work of Kim Anderson of responsibility. And so, I think a lot about the responsibility that comes with holding a story of another or with how we're positioned to see and understand the world. But that word ability means to me being willing to show up and do the work of understanding and connecting and holding with care, the stories and lives of others.

Liz Jackson  5:22 
From there, I went to jazz land, and you know, you're familiar with these places that I've worked. So, I worked as staff at a SSHRC funded project called improvisation community and social practice that interrogated creative practices, particularly improvised musical and other practices, trying to understand what they can teach us and how we can learn from them about other forms of social and political practice. Turns out, it's really, really cool and interesting. And so, another little treasure that comes from that, that work is the concept that George Lipsitz and others created called art-based community making. And I bring that in, because it's another one of the voices in my head. So, art-based community making flips community-based artmaking. So, it's not you're not just doing community making art, but you are making art and with thus making community. So, it's a co-creative practice that envisions implements and enacts, whether temporarily, the kind of just futures to work, which we aspire, and that that just resonates in my head so deeply. So, all these little collections coming right. And now here I am, this job came up. And I just thought this is where I need to be now. This is the next place for me to be. So, I'm now directing community-engaged unit, and trying to keep all the little gifts of ideas and concepts that I've been lucky enough to gather from all these other places I've been and the people I've, you know, learned, learned with and from. I feel like that's, that's me, that's the end.

Am Johal  6:47 
Yeah, your words really resonate with me as someone who was not a particularly good undergraduate student and getting involved in social movements and political life in various ways, grassroots organizing, but the intensity of that world led me into the arts because it was like a form of therapy in terms of the intensity of politics and community organizing, of being able to be involved in different types of conversations, being taken out of the intensity of the now, although that also happens in the art world as well, in various ways. But I think, I never ever saw these things as working together until I started my work at SFU, out of an art school where all of sudden, these links start to being made together in interesting ways. In terms of the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute, I'm wondering if you can talk about that, because I know from my perspective, you know, having sat on a committee related to the Community Engaged Research Initiative here at SFU, we were looking at other places that already had, you know, infrastructure in place to support faculty members, grad students, but also communities to carry out their research in a way that was going to be impactful from a social justice point of view, and other ways. And as we looked around, and really just so impressed with the work that you've been doing there for so long, that institute, that has been a huge inspiration for us as a relatively new area, trying to figure out how to make sense of this work and how to go about it in terms of establishing this office. So would just love to hear more about, sort of your relationship to it, the kinds of things you've been working on, because I think it has a lot to offer our listeners and also the post secondary educational ecology that we have in the country that these types of units have a huge amount of impact for relatively small number of resources that go into them.

Liz Jackson  8:40
Well, thank you first, for your attention and, and kind words about our unit, we really do value hearing feedback, both critical and positive from other people with similar orientations and hopes and I'm really happy that it has been useful to you to watch us. I should say first that of course, I came into an already beautifully built and staffed unit. I did not build it. So, the founding director Linda Hawkins is really, she and her faculty and dean colleagues and community collaborators are to be credited with having built this thing. So, in the early days in the kind of late 2000s, I guess 2005-ish, what was then called the Institute for Community Engaged Scholarship was kind of brought in as a small grant funded pilot, sort of a proof-of-concept struggle. And I wasn't there for that, I didn't have to do any of that work. So, I did join at the same time that I came to work in the improv world, I worked a day a week also CESI and that was really a lovely, lovely, generous opportunity that I was given by Linda, to witness and watch and joined as a research associate. 

Liz Jackson  9:39 
So, CESI, the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute, we are a research and teaching support unit. We're not a research institute. And that becomes significant later on when I talk about our programs. So, what that, what that means ground level is that in the College of Social & Applied Human Sciences, which is our home college, we have a mandate to support, facilitate, implement and develop capacity for what we, at CESI, call Critical Community Engaged Scholarship. So that's, just in short, collaborative research between university and academic experts towards community identified research priorities. And the critical part means that since I came in as director, I've added a very important kind of strategic direction, which is that CESI has committed itself to Critical CES and which is a concept that I did not make up by Cynthia Gordon de Cruz. And it basically means collaborative scholarship that seeks to address systemic causes of injustice. So, we're not only, I don't want us only to be helping a food bank feed more people, I want to also be learning about eradicating systemic causes of food insecurity, right. So that's kind of a high-level difference.

Liz Jackson  10:46 
So, that's what we've been putting our brains to for the past almost five years since I've been in this job. Our programs are five main ones. So, we have a Community Engaged Teaching and Learning Program staffed by two people. In that program, community research priorities are brokered into courses or theses so that students become co-researchers on community research priorities. This can happen at the undergrad level all the way up to the PhD thesis level. That's a really nice, that's a really wonderful model. Because it's often possible to scope a smallish project that then gets brokered across to another of our programs for a longer term or second phase. Or sometimes that's a collaborators first door into the university, and they develop a relationship with the instructor or faculty member that they worked with. So that’s CETL.

Liz Jackson  11:32 
We have a Research Shop, which is our oldest running and most visible, I think, programs. So that is based on the European science shop model. In our Research Shop, students are paid hourly, quite well to do research. So, they're trained and supervised in collaborative research. And they again, they carry out research with and for community identified priorities.

Liz Jackson  11:51
We have a Guelph Lab, which is a municipal innovation lab that was a shared 50/50 project, co-directed by me and a counterpart at the City of Guelph, and it has a more of a lab model. So, it's a more kind of innovation-y test and try experimental design, but still with the same principles, deeply integrated. So that addresses largely social and community issues that can be affected by municipal levers.

Am Johal  12:16
I was going to ask about, in terms of the pandemic context, how has that affected your work in Guelph through the unit? Because I think, you know, there are these questions inside of community-engaged scholarship that have always been around. And then, when you have, you know, the pandemic is just one of many social crises, racial justice, many others that have been accelerated in this time, particularly the last few years. And I'm wondering, research happens at a kind of slower pace that has its other kinds of moments. And what are the kinds of questions that come up for you in terms of the possibilities and perhaps the limitations of this work?

Liz Jackson  12:57 
Yeah, it's a fantastic question. I got to tell you; I was giving a workshop this morning on Critical CES. And this was, this one person who is there, just asked me, after I'd finished my high-level values, principles, practices, address the systemic inequities. She said, what can you do about Ukraine? And she wasn't being a jerk. She was a genuine, brilliant, sharp question. And I think you're asking a similar thing, you know, these are urgent times, what are we doing? How are we poised to support or enable or intervene? And I didn't have a beautiful answer for her. And I might not have one for you either. So, I'm going to take a few paths into it. One thing that I try to ensure we are poised to do is respond quickly. So, we do have a few kinds of shapes of project and routes through CESI that are quick response, sort of quick turnaround things. So, if there's a pressing policy shift, and one of our partners is poised to lose funding, we will pivot and we'll do a small piece of work for them in a timely way. Doesn't solve wars, right.

Liz Jackson  13:57
Another thing that we tried to do, that's kind of a longer term, anticipatory thing is that we stay in relationship, we stay in community, we attend the same rallies, we sit on boards, we go to AGMs, you know, so that we're already in dialogue with as many people networks, you know, grassroots or formal as possible so that when things do arise, we're already in relationship, the trust is already there. We're not starting from scratch. There are, as you are suggesting, with the question, massive limitations to what we can and can't actually affect, right. But my goal is that we don't ever claim that we are the only ones who can address these complex issues, but rather that we know enough to build and join larger bodies that maybe together can address the social issues that we all are concerned about. So, I hope that doesn't sound like a shrugging off or weaseling out, but I would never go anywhere and say community-engaged scholarship can save the world. It can sure help, right. But I mean, I'm not, we're not in any position to fix everything. We are in a great position to identify strengths and expertise and resources and to lend support to good work that is already ongoing or to help convene teams that are poised and ready to address things.

Am Johal  15:09 
Yeah, no, I think that's a really, it's a great answer because I, I think of, you know, being a social activist in the 90s when there was a big drug overdose crisis happening similarly to the drug contamination issue, which is even deeper, right now, in terms of numbers of deaths and social impact, but at that time, you know, if there weren't university researchers looking at what was, you know, happening in Switzerland or the Netherlands and harm reduction policy, we wouldn't have been able to kind of smuggle it into bureaucratic reports that were then mainstreamed, you know, at the beginning, when a supervised injection site was brought up in Vancouver. There might have been 20% support. But you know, after a year or two of engagement with, you know, rigorous research backing up and supporting what people were saying on the ground, there was probably two thirds of people supportive of it. And, and public opinion really changed because of that synthesis of, you know, grassroots organizing with the support of researchers who were connected in with community, definitely in terms of the interfacing with the policy world in particular, although that's not the only place where communicate research can have an impact. Also, in widening imaginations and creating possibilities on the ground, these things all intersect in interesting ways. And you never know ahead of time, what's going to be the thing that moves the dial, you know, that's, it's part of the process, I suppose.

Liz Jackson  16:33 
And that's the joy of it. And if you don't mind, I just wanted to, I'm happy that you brought up that specific example of, you know, supervised consumption facilities and so on. Because I think one of the, part of what I didn't articulate well, that you just said, and I want to kind of reaffirm as a CESI thing too, is that, this being in community, showing up in places, sitting on boards, it's not just, it's not strategic, right, it's just how you show up as a full person with shared commitments. So, it's not like I say, we must be in dialogue at least once every X days in order to, you know, have trust, it's actually because we genuinely care about the same things as others. So, when there is a research priority that we can address, we know that we're building fodder for future advocacy, even if we're not able to, you know, magically fix anything in the moment. So, we have also worked with them safe consumption, facilities research, and we're doing work right now about student food insecurity. And it feels, you know, it's been years we've been doing that work. And finally, yesterday, our first sliding scale fresh food market launched on campus, right. And that's the result of three years of excellent collaborative work that was led by the Guelph lab facilitator with this amazing team, meal exchange, you know, this seed, which is a food social enterprise in Guelph, the upper admin of our university. So, yeah, I really appreciate you saying that about kind of the way that research can help to build a case or demonstrate, you know, impacts so that when there is time to act, we're ready to do so when we can be quite compelling.

Am Johal  17:58
I want to ask about, you had you had mentioned your work in improvisation and community and social practice, before you've had experience working in non-profits, the academic context, activist/artistic practices. And I'm wondering how you would articulate how this background of yours, how these practices, ways of thinking, scholarship, intervention work together? And what threads do you draw out at different times and the work that you do now, I know for myself, the things that I did before certainly inform how I function inside of the academy. I'm a staff person, but I teach, I do my own forms of research being out of an art school. So, I'm sort of in that zone, myself. So, I feel like I understand where you're coming from. But I want to ask the question, just to hear what your answer would be.

Liz Jackson  18:48 
And then if we have time, I want to ask it back to you. Because that's, maybe that's when I start my own podcast. Yeah, I love this question. And it's, in a way, very strangely hard for me to articulate like when you sit when you draw in certain bits, because for me, it all travels together, right? So, I did give a talk a few years ago, that was just after I moved from the kind of improv institute art space community making role that I've been in for many, many years into this director of a social science base unit. And it was a really wonderful invitation by my former boss at Ajay Heble to think and articulate for myself and for people who are kind enough to listen, how our base community making and improv principles intersect with or differ from, or how that how it all kind of coalesces for me and my practice with the principles of ethical engagement. And I've continued to think about that and articulate it in different ways.

Liz Jackson  19:39 
For you today, what I'm going to say is, because my role is based in social sciences, and funded almost exclusively in that way, I feel very seriously respectful and accountable to the disciplines in which I am largely working. And or but, I know that I'm better at this work because of the pathway that I've taken to be here. And I know that the work that we do will continue to get better the more we integrate creative processes, anti-oppressive—explicit anti-oppressive work and commitments. Art spaced research methods and contexts where they haven't been used before or have been treated as adults, like I deeply deeply believe in creativity and nonverbal communication as ways to amplify, rather than just pretty up the work that we're doing. But for me, it's all about the same thing, right? 

Liz Jackson  20:24 
So, when we're co-creating, I'm the chair of a beautiful non-profit, and maybe I'll name drop that later. But when I'm in that role as board chair, or in previous times when I facilitated, like a storytelling workshop, or I used to work a lot of music and musical workshops with people who, many of whom are nonverbal, you can't rely on this blah, blah, blah thing that I'm so good at, right. And so, I have a really serious joy, about creativity. And I also have a very deep belief. And it's, as I'm saying, things you already know, but I really see creativity and creative practice as not just a nice thing to do, but actually a fundamentally human mode of expression, knowledge discovery, knowledge sharing, and community making. And so, one of my goals for CESI in the next five years, you know, is that we really deeply and thoughtfully shift our practices and broaden our registers of communication so that we are including and enabling more forms of knowledge and more people with it. 

Liz Jackson  21:22 
So, in terms of your question about how non-profit and activist efforts that I've been linked to and part of, inform my work as now quite well-paid academic staff member myself that talks to student committees, does occasional teaching, the way it influences my work is that I feel much more accountable to that list, or those communities and organizations than I do to the strategic plan of a single college or institution. So that's what I meant, I think 20 years ago, when I had this phrase, academic activism that I kept trying to use to mean something. I now say Critical CES, but it's the same thing to me, it's choosing, you know, given your positionality and my identity, my positionality, identity, circle of influence, showing up as I am best positioned to, in support of, or in service of, or in alignment with, or an ally ship, or as an accomplice to good work that is needed in the world and possibly in the world. So, I'm still an activist, I do a lot more going to board meetings and talking about things than I do, you know, when we had Mike Harris in the 90s in Ontario of so I did a lot of rallying, and tuition protests and things like that. But to me, it doesn't feel like I'd be co-opted, because I'm still accountable to the same goals and visions. And I'm still, as a community-engaged scholar, you know, it's really important to acknowledge that this was not an academic invention. This was an intentional effort to bring the strategies, insights, critical analyses of activists, largely anti-racist activists, I think, in North America and other activists bring those brilliant, creative and critical interventions into academic practice. So, that's who we're accountable to. That's who we stand on the shoulders of, right.

Am Johal  23:09 
I'm wondering, what are you working on now that you're really excited about?

Liz Jackson  23:17 
All of it. So, I did mention briefly the student food insecurity work. And I might talk in a little bit more detail about that, because that is really pressing and really beautiful to me. So many, many years ago, maybe four, Sam and I started talking about student food insecurity. He has contacts at Lakehead, who may also have been Charles Levkoe and others. And he had contacts at mail exchange, who were doing ongoing work at the national level around student food insecurity. And so, we decided that we bring that to Guelph. So, in one of our Community Engaged Institute, learning courses, a bunch of nutrition students analyzed data from surveys that enabled us to kind of quantify and understand experiences of student food insecurity on our campus. Meanwhile, we're in dialogue with colleagues across the country who are taking steps to address food insecurity at their institutions. Our then dean and now Provost, as well as one of our high up a APS of Student Affairs, agreed to convene their counterparts at other universities. So, we held a session where we shared the results of our research and kind of did a bit of a call to action. There now remains on campus a pretty strong and robust working groups across hospitality, Student Health, this social enterprises receives student leaders and others. And, as I said, we just launched this sliding scale food market, which is one of many initiatives that we're engaged in to help address student food insecurity. And then in order to eliminate student food insecurity, we're also doing some more slow burn internal policy advocacy work, because we know that student food insecurity is a money problem. And it's a racism problem. It's not a market problem, right. So that one I'm very excited about.

Am Johal  24:52 
Yeah, I know that you're living in Hamilton right now. And you're involved with the University of Guelph, and I hear great things about both cities. And I'm wondering if you can speak to your relationship with both.

Liz Jackson  25:04 
Oh, man, you know, thank you for that question. I always thought I would end up moving to Guelph. I did my undergrad and my masters there and Ajay [Heble] had to gently kick me out and tell me you got to go somewhere else. It was like, just get out of here. So, I came to Hamilton to do my PhD at Mac. And I really feel like both of these cities are my hometowns. And I really literally sometimes forget which one I'm in, you know.

Liz Jackson  25:24 
So, Guelph is where I, I, you know, I went in Fall of 1995. And I identified very strongly with the kind of hippie hacky sack guitar on the lawn Guelph vibe. It's where I did a lot of my first really hard reckoning and thinking about who I am and how in position and my varying identities and so on. And it's where I decided I want to be an academic activist. Mac is where I went and turned it back to books. And I had, I had a wonderful mentorship experience there with my supervisor and my committee members as well. And that's where I started understanding that for me, story is really a site that I want to stay in deeply. And so, it's also I forgot to tell you in my wandering paths story, but it's also where I returned between improv jobs to do a postdoc about community engagement. So, the two are woven together for me, like I'm up and down the road. I will say, now, it's funny, being involved with the Guelph Lab, because there's so much happening in Hamilton. I don't know if our news reaches you. But we are a mess. I mean, we're a mess. There's police violence, there are these incredible community leaders, activists who are facing inordinate charges, because they were at an encampment while people were being cleared out, they didn't do a thing. And they were thrown to the ground and knees and shoulders level of violence. And so, part of me feels a little split now, where I didn't before, because I want to turn CESI's rage, rage and passion to the city in a way that I'm not able to because my work life is there. So, I do feel a bit split in that way. But luckily, we have amazing colleagues at McMaster that are holding it down at their office of community engagement. And so, I do my best to amplify and lend support to activists and scholars here in Hamilton that are doing work.

Am Johal  27:07 
Liz Is there anything you'd like to add?

Liz Jackson  27:10 
I do want to talk about Art not Shame a tiny, weeny bit. 

Am Johal  27:13 
Yeah, for sure. 

Liz Jackson  27:15 
So, Art Not Shame is the organization that I'm board chair. And we're about to turn five, this Spring. And so, the reason I'm mentioning it here is because it's another piece of the same bundle of principles and practices. And I really do respect the work that's done in charitable and non-profit sectors a great deal, usually with much less in terms of capacity and resource. So, at Art Not Shame, we're in our base community making organization and we kind of work at the intersection of co-creation, anti-oppressive practice and design and the learning journey of building and running that organization has been inordinately beautiful and humbling in terms of how hard it is to deeply integrate anti-oppressive practices while reliance on project-to-project funding. So, I would love any artists or community creators listening to share with me their strategies because I see a value that works so deeply and I'm so excited to be part of that as well.

Am Johal  28:11 
Liz, thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar.

Liz Jackson  28:15 
It was a pleasure. Thank you for your time and the chat.

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Kathy Feng  28:22
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. Thanks for listening to our conversation with Liz Jackson. Head to the show notes as always to find links to resources mentioned by Liz and to the full transcript of this episode. If you like our show, hit subscribe to make sure you never miss an episode. Thanks again, and see you next time on Below the Radar.

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Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
May 10, 2022

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