Sign up for online Course on Participatory Action Research (PAR) and transdisciplinary approaches to Agroecology

Interested in learning about how to apply participatory, trandsdiciplilary and action research in your work? Sign up for this online course taking place from September to December 2021.

Participatory, transdisciplinary and action research have become internationally recognized as pillars of knowledge production for agroecology and food sovereignty. These approaches are also complex and unorthodox in many contexts and requires a careful and intentional cultivation of a researcher’s commitments, skill and competencies. This course will help students to meet this challenge through a systematic engagement with theory, skills, methods and a critical reflexive self-examination of our role in the research processes.

INSTRUCTOR: Colin R. Anderson

AVAILABLE FOR CREDIT OR FOR NON-CREDIT (CONTINUING PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT). Visit here for more info. Email: colin.anderson@uvm.edu with questions.

CLASS MEETING TIMES AND LOCATION: Weekly zoom meetings on Tuesdays from 13:15 to 15:15 EST.

In this course, we will build a foundation for our learning by examining the ‘politics of knowledge’ or the ways that power and privilege shape science, academia, innovation and development. To this end, we will engage with critical theoretical traditions, such as feminism and decoloniality, to help students understand and challenge oppressive power relations in society as they are expressed in the knowledge systems that we are embedded within.

The course will explore different approaches to participatory and transdisciplinary research applied in different contexts.

If this sounds like challenging material, that’s because it is! But don’t stress too much, we’ll do our best to demystify and unpack these concepts together and to ground these ideas in relation to our own work, lives, and perspectives. We will also get practical and focus on the nuts and bolts of doing Participatory Action Research (PAR), which can be described as a process of research, education and action in which participants work together to understand and transform reality. It generally involves iterative cycles of inquiry by collectives of people seeking to address problems of common practical and political concern. We will shine a spotlight on several methods used within this tradition including, for example, participatory photography, popular education, theatre, indigenous approaches, deliberative methodologies, auto-ethnography and different forms of qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods inquiry.

The course will explore the value of ‘people’s knowledge’ and the notion of cognitive justice which demands, “It demands recognition of knowledges, not only as methods but as ways of life. This presupposes that knowledge is embedded in an ecology of  knowledges, where each knowledge has its place, its claim to a cosmology, its sense as a form of  life. In this sense knowledge is not something to be abstracted from a culture as a life form; it is connected to a livelihood, a life cycle, a lifestyle; it determines life chances.” (Visvanathan 2009)

We will look at PAR especially in the context of agroecology and examine how the integration of PAR and transdisciplinary approaches can serve to deepen our collective understanding of complex problems/issues. Students will learn how to apply a transdisciplinary PAR approach to topics in agrifood system studies and action. We will examine examples of agroecological PAR projects, to draw lessons learned and to find inspiration. Students will be asked to articulate and develop their own self-understanding of their praxis as a researcher.  In addition to asynchronous online learning, this course will include a synchronous 2-hour weekly online meeting via MS Teams that will involve a range of different interactive activities including discussions, workshops and guest speakers. Regular and active participation in these sessions is a core component of the course learning and assessment. Students will take on a rotating role in designing and facilitating a student-led component of the weekly meetings. 

READINGS:

Required: 

  • Wakeford, T., and Sanchez Rodriguez, J. (2018). “Participatory Research: Towards a More Fruitful Knowledge”, in: Connected Communities Foundation Series.(Bristol: University of Bristol/AHRC Connected Communities Programme).
  • Weekly assigned articles, videos, podcasts, etc.

Recommended:

Tuhiwai Smith, L. (2021) Decolonizing Methodologies: research and indigenous peoples. 2nd edn. London: Zed Books

Méndez, V.E., C.M. Bacon, R. Cohen and S.R. Gliessman (Eds.) (2015)Agroecology: a transdisciplinary, participatory and action-oriented approach. Advances in Agroecology Series. CRC Press/Taylor and Francis.

Freire, P. (2017) Pedagogy of the Oppressed(Penguin Modern Classics). London: Penguin.

All required readings (e.g. journal articles, news excerpts, fact sheets, etc.) will be provided

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

By the end of this course students will have:

  • Developed an understanding of participatory action research (PAR) and transdisciplinary approaches, and how they are distinct from other research and action approaches;
  • Deepened their understanding of how knowledge is situated, gendered, racialized, colonial and thus has contributed to social injustice and oppression;
  • Considered how these structures and power dynamics influence research processes;
  • Explored how PAR and transdisciplinary approaches can be applied in agroecology, including through the examination of inspirational case studies;
  • Learned about designing research that is both rigorous and provides meaningful contributions to the community/stakeholder(s) and the researcher(s);
  • Thought about their own positionality to situate themselves in the learning objectives above;
  • Developed strategies for critical self- and collective reflection and evaluation in participatory research processes and practice;
The course will include an exploration of the nuts and bolts of participatory and transdisciplinary research.

VEPART featured on UNH Extension “Over-Informed on IPM” Podcast

VEPART featured on UNH Extension “Over-Informed on IPM” Podcast

The episode, called “PAR for Leek Moth” highlights our core team members, Vic Izzo (ALC Education Coordinator) and Scott Lewins (ALC Extension Coordinator), and their leek moth research project under the VEPART (Vermont Entomology and Participatory Action Research Team) umbrella. They detail issues the leek moth pest poses for farmers in the Northeast, control methods including Trichogramma wasps, the PAR (participatory action research) approach they take when working with farmers, and much more! Check it out here.

Exploring agroecology at the Intervale from a bird’s-eye view

Exploring agroecology at the Intervale from a bird’s-eye view

María A. Juncos-Gautier
ALC Research Associate
Doctoral Candidate, York University, Toronto, CA

Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel Prize winner, once explained: “In a bird’s eye view you tend to survey everything and decide on a particular point, then you swoop down and pick it up. In a worm’s eye view, you don’t have that advantage of looking at everything.” This was my experience last summer and fall when I had the privilege of facilitating a comprehensive evaluation of the principles of agroecology at the Intervale Center (IC) as part of my doctoral fieldwork. I used multiple surveying methods and followed ALC’s signature Participatory Action Research (PAR) approach to explore with the IC community the presence and implementation of agroecological principles in their daily practices. I was able to attest how a self-evaluation process using PAR and multiple methods encouraged the stakeholders to have a holistic awareness of their organization for positive, targeted actions. As one of the IC team members told me: “It kept me tuned into noticing things in a different way. It was nice to have a reminder of what’s the bigger impact of the things we are doing here, and how can I tie it into the principles.” This was music to my ears. I was helping others see the Intervale in a new light to advance understanding and action toward agroecology.

Engaging in research-reflection-action at the Intervale

The IC is a non-profit in Burlington, Vermont, with the mission of strengthening community food systems. Its 340-acre property along the Winooski River floodplain, about a mile from downtown Burlington, also houses and supports exemplary cases of organic urban/peri-urban agriculture and a food hub for local fresh produce. As Participatory Action Research (PAR) partners, the two main research questions the IC and I want to answer are:

  • Is the Intervale an agroecological organization and/or landscape?
  • What are the challenges and opportunities for being recognized as such in Burlington and elsewhere?

To answer these questions, the IC agreed to become a case study for a principles-focused evaluation[1] of agroecology. A principle is a “fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.”[2] As an environmental professional I have always enjoyed working with principles because they facilitate an all-encompassing perspective of a situation. Working with principles means working with major leverage points. Any changes in the principles of a system -no matter whether organizational, political, or cultural, for example – could lead to significant shifts in the whole system.[3]

My fieldwork, in a nutshell, consisted of two lines of investigation, one practical and the other theoretical. The practical line was with a sample of thirty stakeholders for one round of interviews, and a subsample of fifteen key players for a second round. Aligning with the IC’s tagline farms, land, and people, the subsample includes farmers, land stewards, and other wonderful people who work at the IC’s multifunctional property in food distribution, gleaning, native flora conservation, reforestation, trails and landscape maintenance, community gardening, administration, business planning, and community-building, among other activities. All the interviews were semi-structured and involved using different surveying methods with visual tools to facilitate insight and discussion (see below): an infographic by CIDSE illustrating a set of fifteen principles of agroecology, maps of the property, and pictures from a photovoice exercise assigned to the subsample for the second round of interviews. The theoretical line of investigation I conducted on my own, as the researcher photo-documenting and taking field notes while engaging in both non-participant and participant (i.e., volunteer work) observation. I wanted to triangulate the practical and the theoretical perspectives and the different surveying methods.

On January 14, I wrapped up my fieldwork with a productive reflection meeting in the IC’s hayloft with the subsample of key actors and the support of the ALC’s leadership team. It was a stimulating experience to see the ALC and IC teams actively engaged in this collective deliberation process. We started with fifteen minutes allocated to browsing through a small exhibit with examples of the visual tools the actors used and marked with their input during the interviews.

The group then divided into smaller discussion groups to reflect on their experience as active participants in the process. They also appraised for the last time the strength of the presence and implementation of each principle at the Intervale on a poster illustrating CIDSE’s principles, and they saw the outcome using a bird’s eye view of the Intervale.

I then presented preliminary quantitative results of my fieldwork, to compare with their results. With minor but important differences to take into consideration, the overall trends in the preliminary results prevailed in the final group appraisal. It was rewarding and reassuring for the group to discover that the different surveying methods and perspectives provided similar results for the principles.

“There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what they care about.”  Margaret Wheatley

Before the reflection encounter adjourned, the IC team members each swooped down from the bird’s eye view and picked up three principles they care about and identify as areas of opportunities, and presented recommendations for next action steps at the Intervale.It was a great way to wrap-up and move forward.

Next I will finish the in-depth qualitative analysis of all the interviews before I share any definitive answers to the research questions, as new, compelling information could modify the preliminary results.

After seven months of fieldwork, I can affirm that all fifteen principles of agroecology, as proposed by CIDSE, can be evidenced, in one way or another, at the Intervale. Certainly, some of the principles are as yet areas of opportunity for an outright agroecological transformation.[4]

I want to express my gratitude to the magnificent people who work in unison at the Intervale. I would have never been able to finish my fieldwork without their warmth and support. I anticipate that their interest in and enthusiasm for my work will be rewarded with valuable information they can use to advance their mission, vision, and goals for Burlington and beyond.


[1] Based on Patton (2018). Principles-focus Evaluation: The Guide. New York, NY: The Guilford Press

[2] Patton, 2018, p. 171.

[3]Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in Systems: A Premier. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing

[4] Colin, R. A.; Bruil, J.; Chappell, M.J.; Kiss, C.; Pimbert, M.P. (2019). From transition to domains of transformations: getting to sustainable and food justice systems through agroecology. Sustainability, 11 (5272).

VEPART Publishes new research brief

VEPART Publishes new research brief

Our colleagues Vic Izzo and Scott Lewins of the Vermont Entomology and Participatory Action Research Team (VEPART) have just published an update on their innovative research on leek moth and the pests relationship with allium crops. The brief outlines the most recent updates of the work VEPART has been conducting over the past 5 seasons on several farms in Vermont. Learn more here!

Engaging in New Partnerships for Agroecological Transformation

Engaging in New Partnerships for Agroecological Transformation

By Ava Murphey, ALC Program Coordinator

8 January 2020

Earlier this year, the University of Vermont’s Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC) signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with four pertinent organizations that promote agroecological and development work in various sectors. These links were fused in an effort to formalize the co-creation of knowledge via innovative partnerships, outlining the intention for collaborative movement building. The goal of such an agreement is for all parties to engage in the synergistic sharing and receiving of knowledge and ideas in order to stimulate, cultivate, and propagate purposeful transformative projects.

In maintaining partnerships that span across different sectors, spheres of influence, and geographic regions the potential for amplified impact and transformation is high. The organizations with which the ALC has recently signed an MOU are Groundswell International, EcoSur, Statistics for Sustainable Development (Stats4SD), and the Centre for Agroecology, Water, and Resilience (CAWR). To name a few, these associations represent ties between academia, public research and development projects, grassroots organizing, and effective statistical analysis. This cooperative approach to co-creation and horizontal knowledge sharing is a direct manifestation of one of agroecology’s foundational principles: transdisciplinarity. The relationship between these groups and disciplines holds the immense capacity for transformative systems change, something which profoundly aligns with and enhances the mission of the ALC and their professional partners.

Collaboration in action

One partnership worth highlighting is that with Groundswell International. In October of 2018, Groundswell contracted the ALC to support participatory monitoring and evaluation on a project focused on strengthening farmer seed systems with eight organizations in southern Mexico.  A year later, on October 18th, 2019 the two organizations celebrated the result of abundant planning and coordinating in their first ever official collaborative occasion, a one-day participatory event that took place at the University of Vermont’s (UVM) Alumni House. The event, titled “Building Collaboration to Amplify Agroecology,” was an engaging and inspiring day that left participants feeling poised to build bridges and tackle the issues they face in their various professional sectors.

The event invitation was circulated to partners and allies of both organizations, Groundswell International and UVM’s Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative

To give some context to the conversation, it is important to highlight the essence of the association between Groundswell International and the ALC. Of critical relevance in the linkage between these two groups is the study and practice of agroecology. In its simplest form, agroecology provides the lens with which to observe ecological processes and their applications to agricultural production systems1. However, agroecology encompasses much more than scientific observation; it is a transdisciplinary approach (merging ecological science with social science, local and indigenous knowledge systems, etc.) that guides research and action towards the sustainable transformation of our food system2.

Groundswell International is a non-profit organization that strengthens communities and farmers’ organizations to deepen and scale agroecological approaches with the aim of improving lives in 10 different countries around the world. Groundswell’s aim is to strengthen farmer-led innovation, and promote exponential farmer-to-farmer learning to generate widespread social and ecological change, strengthen local food systems, inform policy, and shift investment and development strategies. The work of Groundswell and its partners is inherently community-led, participatory and transdisciplinary in nature. It is within these frameworks that the most salient connection emerges with their UVM partners, the ALC.

While Groundswell International exercises its prowess in the non-profit sector, the ALC promotes complementary goals while operating within an academic setting, utilizing the principles of agroecology and Participatory Action Research (PAR) in the field with projects in New England and around the globe. The ALC is a community of practice that includes faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, and a host of local and global collaborators. The mission of the ALC is to “co-create evidence and knowledge, with farmers and other actors, to cultivate socially just and ecologically sound food systems3.” Students and faculty alike conduct research and collaborate on projects that integrate academic disciplines, amplify the voices of non-research actors, and seek real world solutions to global food system challenges.

All of this came into play in October’s workshop. While the Groundswell International team met on UVM’s campus with leaders of partner organizations from Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Senegal, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Haiti, Mexico, and Nepal for their biannual global conference, the ALC team was hard at work preparing for the public event at the end of the week, “Building Collaboration to Amplify Agroecology.” The ALC’s practice of PAR informed the structure of the day. Instead of creating an environment in which participants received a deluge of information from various speakers, the idea was to engage participants in strongly facilitated discussions and activities in which all attendees were heard and valued as critical contributors to the conversation. Through a combination of individual and group work, participants were encouraged not only to share their experiences with a larger audience, but also to take a critical look at themselves and their specific roles within this movement. Strengthening this internal understanding, along with a healthy dose of external inspiration, can be a powerful way to deepen collective learning and augment meaningful change.

The 80 attendees ranged in their backgrounds from academics, philanthropists, allies, activists, students, farmers, and beyond. In the morning, break out groups  heard from three Groundswell representatives from different countries about their strategies to tackle key challenges in promoting agroecology: farmer-to-farmer innovation; women’s empowerment; nutrition-linkages; local markets; and climate resilience.  Then, key lessons were shared with the full audience through a dynamic poster fair where participants got to rotate and learn about each theme from grassroots practitioners. ALC facilitators and Groundswell staff and partners collaborated to ensure lively dialogue and learning.

The event featured speakers from all over the world who provided insight into their agroecological projects that centered on themes of climate change resilience, local markets, nutrition, women’s empowerment, and farmer-to-farmer innovation. Pictured on the right is Tsuamba Bourgou, Groundswell Regional Coordinator for West Africa 

(Photos: Sara Klimek, UVM Junior Environmental Studies)

The afternoon was dedicated to a round-table workshop that centered on the metaphor of a puzzle. New groups were formed and each group came up with their response to the theme of the day: “how do we build collaboration to amplify agroecology?” They represented the answer to this question on a large puzzle piece. In closing, each group presented their piece, as the collaborative puzzle was assembled on the wall, bit by bit. One puzzle piece boasted an elaborate drawing of a cart pulled by a campesino with a rising sun that represented ancestral knowledge and wisdom; another displayed a colorful tree of traced hands that spoke to the interconnectedness and solidarity found in agroecological resilience; and yet another highlighted the importance of acknowledging power and privilege as we enter into dialogues about inciting change. The final product was beautiful- a vibrantly decorated and rustically assembled puzzle on the wall of the conference room that everyone in the room had contributed to.  Yet this puzzle was just a visual expression of multiple connections and opportunities for collaboration identified by participants. 

The UVM Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative facilitation team organized various individual and group work sessions reflecting on agroecology in action and as a social movement.

Moving forward

If we zoom out to the larger picture again for a moment, the collaborative event between the ALC and Groundswell International provides an excellent example of exactly what it proposed to have participants engage in:  “building collaboration to amplify agroecology.” Groundswell International and ALC are building off of this experience to deepen collaboration, and through its MOU with various organizations, the ALC aims to expand and strengthen networks and interdependence with the ultimate goal of transformative agroecology. 

Returning to the puzzle that was assembled at the end of that October day, some pieces remained blank- a representation of those that we need to work harder to include at the table, of those voices that are underrepresented, and work yet to be done.  The empty spaces are also a promise. A promise to the future and all that it holds; the spark of inspiration for collaboration that has been cultivated throughout this partnership and the hope that our future embodies the potential for systematic global transformation. 

Works Cited

1.Dalgaard, Tommy, and Nicholas Hutchings, John Porter. “Agroecology, Scaling and Interdisciplinarity.” Agriculture Ecosystems and Environment 100(2003): 39-51

2.http://www.uvm.edu/agroecology/our-approach/agroecology/

3.https://www.uvm.edu/agroecology/about-us/