Day 1- Radical Participatory Research: Decolonizing Participatory Processes


— Thank you, it’s good to be here. Welcome to our conversation, where we will talk through radical participatory research


— The gentlemen in this photo called me out, and reminded me of transactional relationships where the participants have zero agency
  • So let’s begin with a land acknowledgement of where I am are in Washington DC
  • Land acknowledgements don’t change allocation of resources, but provide an alternative past
  • Mythologies can be living or dead, so let’s take the time to think through decolonizing participatory research



— According to some, Homo Sapiens came about 315,000 years ago, and PR emerged either in 1940s or 1970s


— Does that meant there was zero participatory research before then?


— What if research is just gathering and transmitting information? There are many examples of that:
  • In West Africa, let’s go back to village raids where slaves were taken across The Atlantic to the americas, and women would braid seeds in their hair and brought it with them to the Americas. They were the original asset mappers
  • Consider midwives in Ancient Greece speaking with animal herders, to leverage contraceptive information into their midwife practices


  • Shamans who took plant knowledge through apprenticeships


— You might say all of examples are great, but they rely on language


— So let’s go back 1.6 million to think about primitive modern hand-axes and experimental process to create better tools



— All of this constitutes research, and has happened all the way to today, since Participatory Research is an ancient practice


— Our problem comes with professional researchers who have narrowed different ways of knowing to one institutional knowledge


— But research can be more


— Instead of an investigation it can be a pluriverse of definitions for research


— And the pluriverse of purposes can be beyond establishing facts and reaching a conclusion


— Many names exist for participatory research,  and mean one of three things
  • Methods like videography
  • Ways of doing methods like community involvement
  • Methodology: Set of principles to choose methods in a process


— But with all of these methods, the design researcher is centered
  • By empowering others, we reinforce hierarchy. We should be giving up power
  • And facilitation is a power on its own— as researchers we can set the terms of the research goals and agenda
    • Interpretation happens without community members present
    • In-between spaces is where power is wielded most greatly


— Researchers should be community member who sits along with all members, equally contributing to all talents gifts and skills of team members


— Community members are also doing their own research, and act as facilitators


— Three requirements for RPR
  1. Community meetings are always present
  2. They outnumber professional researchers
  3. Community members own artifacts and narratives
— This open betters futures for:
  • Who participate
  • Who initiates
  • Who leads


— In community driven design, the community is always participating and leading


— Typical participatory research is colonial, regardless of who initiates, as UXRs are always participating, but there is co-leadership with the community


— Lets invite ourselves to move into RPR, or radical participatory research, where community always leads and participates


— RPR says cultural and lived experience is greater than mainstream institutional knowledge
  • It’s hard for a medical doctor to resolve medical issues, by relying on just textbooks, without having your knowledge of how your body works and how it hurts
  • You can solve health problems without certain institutional knowledge like dehydration, hunger, etc.
— So I want to explicate the benefits of RPR through the following project


— First, there is the example of digital literacy project in India, which had many components


— Next, I have a failed example of failed research for international summer learning program, where DC high school students are present


— Move away from inclusive research to a team, which facilitates inclusive recruitment and research


— Group can go into communities and leverage those references
  • Trust is built and the community builds on that


— Have humans you are centering on the research team, and you are more likely to move from just HCR to planet and life-centered research


— Digital literacy thinking of solutions that don’t worsen pollution
  • In the case of a drinking water challenge,  “Ensuring a safe, sustainable, equitable, and affordable drinking water future” is a life-centered challenge for animals


— Empathy is an impossibility, as inherent power imbalance between the researcher and participant
  • Rarely do we have an emotional empathetic responses, and compassionate empathy to move to act
— Think of types of empathy and think of how to say it
  • Compassionate empathy is hard to reach due to financial arrangement, and applying research pro-bono to make a design decision
  • RPR just says embed empathy on team with community members


— Trauma responsive design is embedded with RPR, and components are more easily embedded


— We also blur the lines between research through design, and non-linearity comes from direction of community’s, which doesn’t have pre-conceived notions of what works


— Systems research is easier to do, as people get implicit and explicitly barriers, and have greater understanding of systems


— You are also more easily embedded, and move away from deficit-based/problem-based research to desire based research
  • i.e. Imagine world where development happens without McDonalds in every country
— Community leads, go to asset- based methodologies, as people focus on what they have


— So what are the values of RPR?
  1. Renumeration and equality. Where community members are paid as same as researchers
  2. Equity, people giving up time they could spend doing something else

— This former principle didn’t happen with summer student learning program
  • Error not to pay students, as professionals not being paid were less impacted than the students were



— Compensation can happen in many ways like breakfast, videographics, recommendations, references, and referrals
  • The compensation choice is theirs


— If the process is RPR, you will have great outcomes
  • The key question to ask is:  Have majority received sustained and sustainable shift in power?


— Service learning, no, as nothing changed for the participants
  • Example of how RPR can flip to another colonial style research
— So design future was created, and design that would satisfy today, and would leave


— For digital literacy, researchers were involved, but research team benefited
  • One person became researcher, project manager, engineer, and received promotion
  • People experienced shift in power
  • Three people from multi-national team brought in to diversify the team



— So let’s sketch out the following scenario: In 2052  the federal government mandates law requiring RPR for any organization dealing with people


— There is a new wave for the future of work, and how people gain skills, and learn
  • For-profit organization push back



— Are there components you prefer or desire of this future?


— So what can you do to make that future more likely to happen?
  • I invite you to give up power and practice RPR


  1. How do you make make sure best practices implemented?
— The question presupposes that  research knowledge is most important,


— When community leads, pulling on lived knowledge of the community as that can lead to new and better outcomes


— We are learning from them, and they are learning from us
  • Lived experience are more up-to-date than institutional knowledge, so we emphasize that
  1. Can we square RPR with profit motive?
— In examples I gave, RPR can go further, where new pluriversal visions of system come out


— RPR work has happened in non-profit, profit, academic settings
  • ROI is greater based on bond with community
  • You can try RPR out with low-stakes projects, and build from there
  1. How can we move orgs to RPR with legal and compliance research?
— In the federal government we encounter barriers every-day


— My critique is not at  “conservative designers”, but the progressives ones who aren’t growing far enough
  • Don’t jump to RPR in one step. Create maturity ladder for next step to move things in the next direction
— Many ways for doing it, so what we do is pay people through contractor work
  1. Ways to minimize extra burden for participants?
— If community is leading, people should want to be there
  • Hidden components deal with pace of work , which moves at the pace of availability, trust, and relationships
  • Be comfortable moving at slower pace
— RPR is educational and the whole process is slower, but with more benefits and is  worth the wait
  1. Tell us more about failed participatory research. What did you learn?
— What I got was from the experience with the summer learning program was that I needed to have person and an org that is willing to give up power
  • I should have done more education on what process means
—The digital literacy project  worked as the project had failed three times before
  • People didn’t care about giving up power and let RPR work
  • Once there was success, more investment happened
— Look for projects where good results stand-out, but ones where people are willing to give something up
  1. How is a RPR community constructed or defined?
— Use the same process in finding research participants to find the community
  • Find qualitatively representative sample for community
  • Attempt to get a more qualitatively representative sample, and go through bias awareness training to manage tensions within the community