Against Extraction: A Reflection on Academy-Community Interactions

 “the respectable man enjoys a dark body best

when it comes with a good

cry thrown in.” —Joshua Bennett

Khadijah, one of the presenters in our workshop “Design and the Politics of Collaboration,” did not have slides. Instead, she read a poem by Joshua Bennett, “A Still Life with First Best Friend.” When it was her turn to present, she gently asked if she could kneel and read the poem as a way of presenting her work to the room. Khadijah Abdurahman’s identity is perhaps important to correctly capture this moment—because moments are conveyed not only through content that we share but also they get captured in our embodied selves. Khadijah is Ethiopian-Irish and identifies as black, grew up on Roosevelt Island and returned to raise her children in the neighborhood in 2015. She is an independent researcher who among other things is committed to hold the actions of Cornell Tech accountable in the land of Roosevelt Island. Upon sharing the poem, Khadijah explained her choice of reading a poem, and Bennett’s poem in particular:  “so much heart in that poem, that’s what I want to bring to this work but I wrestle as he does in one of the first poems in that series. How do you bring your truth without artifacting it? How do you break through with all the ugly pieces survived erasure without it being another entry point into extraction for capitalism, a museum, still with the objectivities but without the people or the culture.” Khadijah’s testimony accomplished what our academic writing of the workshop proposal could not afford to do: it spoke the truth we wanted to speak about exercising a grassroots commitment to design with genuine vulnerability. With all of our work, we hope to collectively move toward finding answers to these necessary but complex questions—our workshop was a first step in that direction.

What is grassroots politics of collaboration? 

In a less poetic way than Khadijah, but from a somewhat shared experience of grassroots community organizing, I proposed a workshop idea to the ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing 2019 (CSCW 2019) along with a lineup of accredited academics who have spent years critically engaging with values of participation, democracy, collaboration, solidarity, innovation, etc. within the field of computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW). In this workshop, we wanted to revisit the fundamental values of CSCW to carefully examine who in our society is currently served by our technologies, whose meaning of collaboration do our technologies embody in the first place, and finally how can we align ourselves more with the grassroots politics of collaboration toward more equitable technological solutions in the future. We formulated grassroots politics of collaboration “as a continuous practice of questioning normative power structures by centering lived experiences of systemic injustices, and simultaneously working toward collective healing, resilience, and resistance against centuries of systemic racism, class and gender-based oppressions.  Our objective with this workshop was to: i) establish an in-depth understanding of the current landscape of grassroots, community-centered CSCW work, ii) share the challenges we are facing in collaborative work with communities, and iii) decide on future strategies for aligning ourselves with grassroots politics of collaboration. We describe our vision and objectives in more detail in our website and the submitted proposal. 

A synthesis of our time together

Our workshop had four sessions. We had fifteen participants including the facilitators (three of the authors of the proposal). In my assessment, our conversation lasted for a whole twelve hours including breaks, lunch, dinner, and the walks in between. In what follows, I report on some key highlights and takeaways from our time together. The report includes the scheduled workshop time (9AM-5PM) but also goes well beyond that.  

Collective meaning-making of grassroots politics of collaboration

This workshop took place for a whole day in a conference room in Hilton Hotel in Austin (the venue for CSCW 2019). This detail might seem insignificant to some readers, but as grassroots organizing has taught me, space/place is important to paint a complete picture of our time together—we had a room set up in a way so we could see each others’ faces and bodies as we introduced ourselves to the space. Places hold political meanings. Even though we did not address the politics through which we end up in a five-star hotel to exchange stories from our fields, in our first session, we did focus on breaking through our polished selves presented via nametags and affiliations to reach some of the core of who we are as individuals beyond the academy. We borrowed a technique of cultural grounding taught to me by the multigenerational Black organizing tribe Spirit House. The technique itself is called “where are you from”—in our workshop practiced a version of it that we could relate to the most. We shared geographic locations we see ourselves coming from, as well as the emotions and sensations we carry within ourselves of the people and places we come from. This exercise was our way of establishing trust, humility, and gratitude for all the different events of our individual lives that led us to be in the room together to form a collective vision. We wanted to welcome our truthful emotions and experiences with the hope that it leads to something bigger, something more meaningful than our individuality. Through this experience, we practiced a fraction of grassroots politics of collaboration—we connected to our previously articulated definition of the phrase with our lived experiences. 

The workbook shared with participants at the beginning of the workshop

Reporting from the fields: examination of users, values, and accountability in our work

In two sessions that followed, we exchanged our experiences of community-centered design practices—particularly on the note of users, values, and accountability. We had focused talks from six participants where they shared details from their own work—these presentations ranged both in topic and in geography. With these presentations we covered critical findings and challenges in topics such as food justice, citizen actions, issues of participation in ICTD, academic responsibilities, and finally ended on a critical note of Catherine D’Ignazio asking a few important questions to the rest of the group. How do we take responsibility for a flawed history of academic-community interactions? What do anti-oppressive funding models (that still involve academics or academic institutions) look like? 

Workshop participants at dinner

Catherine’s questions—added to our collective vision for the workshop—led us to the next session of small group discussions—these small groups of five chose a spot in the hotel breaking out from the main room. The groups were chosen beforehand with careful attention to commonalities in motivation (i.e., why do we do the work that we do) and diversities in methods and academic positions (i.e., how we approach our research questions). For example, each group included individual answering similar research questions with their own work but via different methods (e.g., qualitative, quantitative, system-oriented, etc.) and positionalities in relation to the academy (e.g., senior graduate students, tenured professors, independent researchers). This allowed for a flow of perspectives and experiences that, in my experience, was important for establishing a shared analyses of our overall field of work. If the reader wonders why I wanted to explain the process in so much detail before sharing our main takeaways, it is because I would not like this report to convey that a group of people with varied experiences and power over one another can have a meaningful discussion without adequate scaffolding. In these two sessions, we practiced another fraction of grassroots politics of collaboration—grounded in our whole selves beyond power positions, we developed a collection of shared consciousness and vision. In what follows, we share three of the principles developed:

We recognize that a key challenge with technology is that it hides spatial segregations that pervade our lives, therefore making it harder to resist structural gaps. We envision a practice of design where relational networks of users, designers, and researchers are formed intentionally to make sure technologies introduced in a community do not end up invisiblizing the societal power relationships underneath it. 

We recognize that our field—academically and industrially—is oversaturated with heroic accounts of technologies. In a culture such as this, failures or even complex stories regarding technical interventions often get lost or simply not told. We envision a future where we move beyond binaries and begin to embrace and acknowledge complex stories of community engagement. 

We recognize that our choice of being in a community that we wish to study or partner with in research is inherently power laden—accountability is most crucial when power relationships are so inevitable. We envision a future where markers of community accountability are systematized in the academic processes like paper review standards, IRBs, etc.

Commitment to Action 

The decisions we made in the workshop will stay with us. We did not find all the answers to questions Khadijah, Catherine, and others came with, but we did find each other. Our commitment going forward is in this collectivity—sustaining this relational network we have formed. Our commitment is also in informing our individual actions with shared consciousness and vision derived from our time together. Our commitment is to continually work toward a future where we feel safe to bring our embodied selves to our research. Our commitment is to simultaneously make space for community partners to participate with their whole selves—the selves that often are survivors of erasure—we commit to ensure a space where these lived experiences are considered as wisdom and not commodities.

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