Speaking truth to power: The complexity and complicity of activist research – a case from Canada
This case example was contributed by a University researcher. It is based on her involvement in a collaborative and participatory research project in Canada with a group of women on low-income, who were receiving welfare benefits. In Canada, social welfare programs and welfare benefits are administered at the provincial level.
My connection with the women arose from a contract I had with one of the ministries of the provincial government. This involved summarizing evaluation reports of welfare to work studies and identifying what appeared to be effective components of programs that enabled single mothers receiving welfare benefits to get back to work. The materials I was to review were all written from the perspective of government policy-makers. I included other relevant research, some conducted from a feminist perspective, in my review. Through the support of a local anti-poverty organization, I also held a day-long focus group, where I asked single mothers receiving assistance what they thought should be part of programs that addressed their real needs as single parents on low incomes. I included what they said in my report to the ministry and also sent the report to the focus group participants.
Following that meeting, I was invited by one of the participants to attend a gathering in her home with other single mothers on low incomes. While initially the group was quite informal, several core participants eventually became an organized collective that focused on assisting others to successfully navigate the welfare system, engaging in activism to make changes in welfare policy, and creating a women’s cooperative with the hope of becoming economically independent. After attending several meetings, participating and observing the group’s process, I suggested a research partnership where we could co-investigate their learning processes using funding I had received to continue my doctoral study of government-funded re-entry programs for women. Instead of continue to examining formal re-entry programs, I turned my attention to how these women were taking ownership of their own learning. In many respects were creating an alternative vision to state-sanctioned programs which, through my doctoral research, I concluded had limited understanding of low income women’s needs and hopes for the future. They agreed. Over a period of couple of years, I attended all their meetings and used my research funding to provide resources they had requested such as computers and computer training and access to relevant research studies. I also provided some food for their meetings. I co-authored a report with the group leaders and helped them to attend and present that report at a welfare conference of a policy think tank with which I was affiliated.
By attending these gatherings (which took place all in a social housing complex) I learned from these women about what it meant to be ‘on welfare’ and the myriad ways the system was punitive and oppressive. It was an eye-opening experience, which contrasted sharply with mainstream assumptions that welfare is about doing nothing for something. I learned that these women were ‘working’ hard, many hours a day, to survive. The welfare rates were very low and it was impossible to live on what these women received. Surviving on welfare was a full time job and took a lot of creativity; it was certainly not about lying around.
To survive, many cut back on what they ate in order to make sure their children received adequate food and they raised cash through the informal economy by babysitting, helping others with shopping, house cleaning, home repairs, and computer assistance. At the time, the welfare rules were that any additional income, no matter how small, was to be declared and welfare benefits were reduced accordingly. One activity the group undertook, with which I helped (making gift baskets that were sold at local markets), raised quite a bit of cash and I opened a bank account in my name in order to protect the funds. There are a number of ethical questions and dilemmas arising from this case.
The first concerns what kind of promises we make when we engage with action research. The women who attended that initial focus group gave me much of their time and insights. I informed them I thought their input would be useful and would be an important part of changing policy. The report I wrote was never acted upon. Indeed, the provincial officials that received the report indicated that they were surprised by my recommendations and felt I had overstepped the parameters of my contract. In retrospect, I wonder now if I could have written a report that included the women’s ideas, but was written in such a way that these officials might have reacted more positively and maybe enacted some changes, even small ones. As I continued to work with the second group of women and document their activities, I also hoped this research could inform policy change and discussed this with the women. I encouraged the group leaders to attend and present at the policy think tank workshop. However, they were treated quite differently from me. Rather than being recognized as experts of the welfare system and their lived experience recognized as an important standpoint from which to understand policy, they were perceived to be objects of study, rather than subjects of their own lives.
These experiences raised questions a number of questions for me. How much do we implicitly or even explicitly suggest to our research partners, especially those on the margins of society and the economy, that their participation will bring about change? Knowing that changing policy is a long and challenging process and there is no direct link between research and policy reform, are we exploiting participants by inviting them to partner with us? Are we guilty of making false promises? Should we be exposing our community partners to academic (and other) contexts in which they are perceived as objects of study, indeed victims of a system, rather than active knowers and agents of change?
Another ethical dilemma that arose from this project is linked with my documentation of the women’s engagement in the informal economy. At that time, major welfare reforms were underway and government had placed much emphasis and indeed many resources were devoted to tracking welfare fraud. Anti-poverty activists pointed to the tiny minority of welfare beneficiaries that were defrauding the government and the false impression this campaign gave to the public. They also were critical of the resources the government was spending on this matter; pointing to how it would have been much more beneficial to use such funds to raise the rates as they were well below the poverty line. I wrote in a general way about their engagement in the informal economy as evidence of the inadequacy of the welfare rates and their commitment to their children and community. But my reporting of this kind of activity put these women at risk of being charged with welfare fraud, no matter if that policy was draconian. I was also at risk as a researcher: how far would my university’s ethical rules regarding confidentiality in research protect me? Another issue of concern is that without detailed research showing the impossibility to surviving on welfare rates, things do not change. My research did not directly challenge the impression that the rates are adequate. Thus by failing to provide detailed evidence of their very strained economic realities, I was also contributing to the mythology about welfare, one held by policy- makers, who were unwilling to increase the rates, despite ongoing efforts by anti-poverty activists including the policy think tank with which I was associated.
Case example prepared by Dr. Shauna Butterwick, Associate Professor, University of British Columbia