Collaboration: Provocation

I am not meant to be alone and without the listening of my family even when my ideas are radical and dangerous
I am not meant to be alone and without inspiration
I am not meant to be alone and without warmth, roots, the world
I am not meant to be alone and without purpose . . .
I am meant to be here
I am meant to be with of each of you
I am meant to be with more rad women of color
I am meant to be with the love, support & freedom of my beloved communities despite our differences . . .
I am meant to be with those seeking to practice freedom
I am meant to be with peace of mind
I am meant to be with deep loving conversations with strangers
I am meant to nurture and be nurtured by people who carry similar visions
I am meant to be awake and necessary
I am meant to be with you.

The opening of this essay is adapted from a poem collaboratively written by participants in “Eye to Eye: Radical Collaboration for Community Accountable Scholars,” a webinar facilitated by Alexis Pauline Gumbs for radical women of color scholars. Replicating it here acknowledges that working in isolation is counterintuitive for scholars seeking to build community who are grounded and guided by the desire to work with others.  

Drawing from both the production of this poem and the significance of its precepts, my intention here is to establish my position as a pracademic—a scholar for whom practice often takes the leading role in academic and research endeavors. The political desires that incite collaboration are beautifully described in a piece recently written by Michelle Tellez on the occasion of being denied tenure. She writes, “we have to ask ourselves in what way we want to contribute to our world . . . we must do work that we are politically, spiritually, and emotionally connected to, work that is accountable to the communities that we represent and are tied to. When we lose this, there is also a loss of joy.” Although she was speaking of writing, Tellez’s pronouncement is also applicable to doing research rooted in feminist ethnography—at least for me. Like Tellez, my practice does not fit neatly into what is rewarded, or expected, in some anthropology careers. When I returned to academia to earn my PhD, I had no training. I was a mother, community health educator, reproductive health and HIV/AIDS advocate, poet and playwright. But early in my academic career I found solace among scholars who wove together creative, activist, and academic work (see Davis 2014).  

The truth is that my Black feminist self does not breathe easily when doing research outside of the solidarities that can come working with movement builders. Over three decades, I’ve taken part of a range of collaborative research projects. One program evaluation project entailed working with Gay Men of African Descent to document how gay men navigate urban enclosures, resulting in their forced migration from New York City’s piers in the Village to parks uptown in Harlem (Davis n.d.). With the Ms. Foundation, a group of researchers worked with young women from across the United States, including Native American girls from the Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux reservations, Black and Latina girls in Chicago, Laotian girls in Richmond, California, and girls of various races and ethnicities from Brooklyn, Washington, DC, West Virginia, and Oregon. These young women demanded that the Ms. Foundation allow them to conduct research and then analyze their own data. Fearlessly and fiercely they captured the challenges and accomplishments of being young women in a society that smothered them in at-risk narratives (Fullwood, Debold, and Davis 2001). A final example is the work on community-based organizations in New York City that I did with six other women of color. This participatory collaborative project resulted in the report “The Impact of Welfare Reform on Two Communities in New York” (Davis et al. 2002). Each of these projects was in conversation with, inspired by, and responsive to community—my communities.  

Collaborative research instantiates an us in a world of rampant individualism. It can also mean that researchers and our interlocutors hold one another accountable in ways that may undermine the uneven power dynamics in research projects. Collaboration is one way to upend antagonistic research practices and neoliberal impulses that privatize knowledge production, pushing aside social justice.  

This does not mean, however, that collaborative research is a sure path to harmony or justice. Indeed, rarely are collaborative projects easy. Tensions arise, and this unease has led me ask: what are the limits of collaboration? Are there pressure points impelling us to replicate power dynamics and hierarchies, however inadvertently? In what follows, I want to reflect on three of these limits: divisiveness, arrogant interventions, and endings.  

Consider when collaborative knowledge production becomes embroiled in divisiveness—sometimes expected, sometimes not. For example, different political perspectives may create schisms, in part because one or more members view themselves as being more important than others. This was the case when I worked in Namibia with a women’s organization where the founding collective was overshadowed by a woman whose vision of how to work toward gender equity differed from other group members. In the context of these types of tensions, we may witness splintering or the demise of collaborators’ commitments. Under such circumstances, researchers—who may also become engaged in power plays—have to navigate the vulnerabilities of those on whom they rely for data. Ultimately, divisiveness can reproduce some of the dissonances between researchers and participants that collaboration seeks to diminish.  

“Arrogant interventions” is Arundhati Roy’s term for the tendency of researchers and activists to believe that their assessment of a situation is almost divinely authentic (Barsamian 2004, 18). I would ask: what are some links between the lofty goals of collaboration and the fatality of presuming that researchers know best? Are we pushing a research agenda, even if it is participatory, that threatens the values comprising a justice perspective? Do collaborative researchers teeter precariously on the edge of acting as saviors?  

Finally, there are simply endings. My own feminist proclivity leans toward longer-term research projects. Of course, that is one of the hallmarks of the ethnographic enterprise. While we may feel committed to the temporalities of research, there are occasions when it is just over. Maybe our interlocutors are tired of us. Maybe we no longer serve them well. It is even possible that they have found someone else with whom they want to collaborate. One colleague’s long-term collaboration with an HIV/AIDS nonprofit ended when the organization shifted their commitment away from an qualitative perspective toward the collection of purely statistical data—a move driven by their funding, which came from the state. In cases such as this, we might have to become comfortable with the balance between what Roy calls “curiosity, grace, humility and letting things be” (Barsamian 2004, 19).  

So how do we ensure that our work contributes to the movements that are making the world we want? How do we ensure that our work is accountable to the communities that we represent and are tied to? While we need to start with work we are connected to, that might not be enough. We also need to approach our collaborations with awareness and humility, acknowledging that our ways of knowing might not always be what others are looking for.  

References

Barsamian, David. 2004. The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile: Conversations with Arundhati Roy. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press.  

Davis, Dána-Ain. 2014. “Katherine Dunham Made Me . . .” In Katherine Dunham: Recovering an Anthropological Legacy, Choreographing Ethnographic Futures, edited by Elizabeth Chin, 101–25. Santa Fe, N.M.: SAR Press.  

_____. n.d. “Evaluation of Gay Men of African Descent.” Unpublished report.  

_____, Ana Aparicio, Audrey Jacobs, Akemi Kochiyama, Leith Mullings, Andrea Queeley and Beverly Thompson. 2002. “The Impact of Welfare Reform on Two Communities in New York.” Report from the Scholar Practitioner Program of the Devolution Initiative, W. K. Kellogg Foundation.  

Fullwood, P. Catlin, Elizabeth Debold, and Dána-Ain Davis. 2000. “The New Girls’ Movement: Implications for Youth Programs.” New York: Ms. Foundation.