Liam Harney, Queen Mary University of London
A Scholar-Activist Project Award from the Antipode Foundation helped fund the first phase of a geographic expedition, inspired by the work of radical geographer Bill Bunge and his community organiser colleague Gwendolyn Warren. The aim of the expedition was to help build a community of citizens in the E14 postcode of London who could identify and develop solutions to common, local issues as part of a wider experiment looking at the role of universities, and participatory geographic inquiry, to contribute towards democratic renewal in modern societies.
The first phase of the expedition worked with 25 residents from the area on a story-telling project in which each person was asked to find stories in their community that showed people’s agency in a positive light. The aim of the project was to help build new and strengthen existing relationships within the area and contribute towards enacting a form of place-based community. The project involved four workshops where participants were trained in techniques of relationship-building, listening and story-telling. They then had conversations with people they already knew from their neighbourhood: colleagues, neighbours, friends and family members. From these conversations, they created stories showcasing a particular achievement of each person, which were compiled into a book called E14: Stories of Hope from an East London Postcode. These stories were presented in a wider narrative about the area of E14 created by the project participants, that highlighted the historic activism of the diverse communities that have called the place home.
The project has made three contributions to radical geographic scholarship. Firstly, it highlighted the importance of underlying social infrastructure for engaging people in collective problem-solving action, and modelled a possible participatory research intervention that could be pursued to strengthen this infrastructure in communities, as a public good in and of itself. Secondly, the project highlighted the difficulties of seeking to work in societies with deep and historic differences and divisions, and questioned the way that current forms of radical geographic scholarship tend to ignore the experiences, beliefs and worldviews of large numbers of people in Western polities. Finally, the project challenged the framing of engaged, participatory research, which almost exclusively is focussed on identifying and solving various “problems”. The success and fun had in the story-telling project, compared with the second phase of the expedition that sought to tackle specific social issues such as mental health service provision and anti-social behaviour, highlighted that perhaps there is more value for engaged research to play a role in building community, strengthening place-based sociality and facilitating the development of relationships between citizens rather than jumping the gun and trying to address social issues through standalone research projects.
The project helped inform my PhD thesis, entitled “Pragmatism, Knowledge Production and Democratic Renewal: The E14 Expedition” (available from the author), as well as an article published in Progress in Human Geography: “Developing ‘Process Pragmatism’ to Underpin Engaged Research in Human Geography” (jointly authored with Jenny McCurry, James Scott and Jane Wills, and available here).
The project was extremely enjoyable, and at times challenging, for myself. It was a pleasure to be able to work with a brilliant set of participants and get to know a part of London I knew little about before. The lessons from this project have inspired me to take a role as a community organiser on the Aberfeldy estate in Poplar, East London, as part of the Big Local programme, where we are working to strengthen community and build local leadership as we invest £1 million into the area.