Assigning students research on social movements and marginalized groups

From an extractive to a relational approach: Craig Fortier shares tips for instructors in all disciplines assigning projects directed towards the study of marginalized groups or social movement organizations.

For over a decade, I checked the email for No One Is Illegal-Toronto, the migrant justice activist group with whom I organized. Almost daily, we would receive messages from students (mostly university, but sometimes high school or college) asking to conduct an interview. Or perhaps for basic information about the organization that could be found on our website. Or even a master’s or PhD student who wanted to “study” our movement for their dissertation. In fact, many of our individual organizers who were publicly recognizable figures received personal emails of the same nature—some at a rate two or three times that of the group email account!

At first, we would try to conduct as many interviews as possible. Our logic was: The more people who know about this issue, the more people who will join our movements and mobilize. But it quickly became clear that many of the students (and, if we are being honest, most of the professors who were telling students to come speak with us) were seeing the activity as a learning exercise for themselves and not as a means of connecting and building tangible (and reciprocal) relationships with social movements.

They also didn’t seem to understand the nature or the structure of community-based organizing. And, it wasn’t just No One Is Illegal. Talk to any active social movement group (from Black Lives Matter to the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty) and they will tell you the same thing: They are inundated with requests from students and teachers for information. At the time I was organizing, No One Is Illegal made the decision to develop a clear and proactive policy around research. The experience of developing that internal policy shaped and guided my own academic work and assignments as I entered the academy.

I’m now an assistant professor of Social Development Studies at Renison University College and I teach courses that are directly related to the study of social movements. It’s now my turn to try to put the principles developed in organizing spaces into practice in the academy—to ensure that we aren’t burning out campus organizers like the Indigenous Students Association, RAISE, UW Base, WPIRG, the UW Women’s Centre, etc. who are mobilizing to bring about the world we wish to see. This is the world that I teach about in my classes, but it is a world that is only actualized through on-the-ground mobilizing.

Where you come in

While this post is specifically about my experience teaching courses on social movements, I think that there are a lot of lessons that can be taken from them for professors assigning projects directed towards the study of marginalized groups, whether it is a mining engineering assignment that takes into account Indigenous peoples as stakeholders, a biology course on the health determinants in a migrant community health centre, an accounting course studying the social and environmental impacts of a particular innovation in business or any other discipline where you are relying partly on information from marginalized communities.

These are some helpful tips I give to my students before they embark on studying any particular social movement or a given marginalized group:

1. Grassroots social movements are largely volunteer driven

The revolution won’t be funded. Almost all of the most engaged and prolific social movements of our time are run by collectives and groups that are unstaffed and rely exclusively on volunteer labour to mobilize. This means that all the members of these organizations are doing something else to financially support themselves and the time that they spend organizing politically is precious. These folks are gifting themselves for the worlds we wish to create and we should treat them with the respect and care they deserve.

Even when a social movement group might have staff, they are usually overworked, underpaid, and precariously funded, meaning that they too require care and diligence with respect to their time.

We need to understand research as a relational process rather than as a process of knowledge extraction.

2. Research is a relational process

Feminist and Indigenous theory (check out the work of Linda Tuhiwai Smith!) has affirmed the need to understand research as a relational process rather than as a process of knowledge extraction. And, especially if we are teaching about social movements, we should be teaching our students about the difference between the two.

In No One Is Illegal-Toronto, our internal policy often included responding to a student, teacher, or researcher seeking to “work” with us by asking what exactly the relationship would be. Have you volunteered or worked with us in the past? Have you engaged in our activities or events? Have you provided some form of material or financial support? Have you built personal relationships with our members? Do you plan to use your research skills in a way that will benefit the group?

Sending an activist organization a copy of your paper (which is almost always promised and almost never followed up on) is not sufficient.

The relationships you create as a student or researcher with your research subjects (not objects) are the foundation of the reciprocal nature of research. Otherwise research is just a form of extraction by students and academics of knowledge and experiences gained through concrete work—work that is often un(der) paid and emotionally draining. 

3. Social movement activists are giving people

The nature of social movement organizing is that it attracts many people who willingly and thanklessly offer their time, commitment, compassion, and wisdom to political struggles. This is especially so for Black, Indigenous, People of Colour, Femmes, Queer and Trans* folks who invest significant amounts of emotional, intellectual, physical, financial, and social energy into day-to-day organizing.

Some of these folks will participate in the same assignment with the same class, semester after semester and year after year, repeating the same information, read by the same professor, for students who dispose of the information in an LEARN drop box and then are done with it. There is no consideration of compensating the activists for their time, there is no consideration of how students themselves have a responsibility to the social movement group that they are studying, and there is no awareness from the professor about the burnout that comes from this repetitive and redundant exercise. It often feels like academics (from professors to undergrads) take advantage of the time of social movement activists give to them.

From Extractive to Relational Research

The solution here is not to stop assigning projects on social movement groups in your classes. I’m arguing instead that we should move towards a radically relational approach to research. One that should be modeled in peer-reviewed academic journals through to first-year term papers.

While primary information is excellent and engaging, we need to train students to seek out all other forms of information before approaching someone to talk in person.

Here are some helpful hints if you are considering a term assignment that requires students to approach an organization on campus or in your community that works specifically with marginalized people: 

  1. Consider your (or your student’s) commitment to this movement or relationship to the community identified in a study. Ask yourself if you have already committed to supporting the group’s mission outside of a class assignment. Do you have the interest and time to start doing so? Have you been to any of their activities or events? Will you plan to go and support them?
  2. Facilitate relationship building. Instructors should be working to build relationships and that means keeping track of who has been approached in past classes, who else is doing the work in the community, and being aware if other students in this current term (or in past terms) have already engaged with the individual or organization that the student is interested in. Instructors should be hands-on in terms of working with students to identify and communicate with potential interview participants.
  3. Make the order of operations clear. While primary information is excellent and engaging, we need to train students to seek out all other forms of information before approaching someone to talk in person. Can the information that you need for an assignment can be obtained without support from the organization? Is it available via a website, news reports, pamphlets, or the many peer-reviewed academic journal articles on any given grassroots social justice group?
  4. Make sure your research is productive, not extractive. This is indeed a learning experience for the student, but it is also a mentorship opportunity. We should model how to produce academic papers that could help to support the organization or people that a student is interested in rather than one that simply summarizes their activities!
  5. Stop, drop, and roll. There are times when your assignment creates an intense situation for one particular social justice activist or a specific group because it is too narrow in focus. If your assignment is creating a line-up outside of say, the UW RAISE office or Waterloo Indigenous Student Centre, then there’s something wrong. That assignment needs to be stopped and reformulated in term. You may also think of dropping the assignment in a future term. Or, perhaps through your own relationship-building with campus or community activists, collaborate to develop an assignment that would help them in their mission!

Academics play an important role in social change around the world. It’s as good a time as ever to encourage active engagement with groups who are already working to build the kind of world we wish to see! Let’s just not be academic tourists. Let’s contribute to change in tangible and meaningful ways through a relational approach to research.

Craig Fortier is an Assistant Professor in Social Development Studies at Renison University College (University of Waterloo) and is the author of Unsettling the Commons: Social Movements Within, Against, and Beyond Settler Colonialism

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