Radical research bringing campus and community together

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On this week's episode of Talking Radical Radio, Scott Neigh speaks with Lama El-Hanan, Rachele Gottardi, and Maverick Smith. They are involved in the Toronto Research Action and Community Exchange (TRACX), an initiative to connect students interested in doing grassroots social justice-focused research with community organizations which need research done. They also organize an annual symposium, which this year will focus on the research needed to support efforts to counter the rise of the alt-right.

At its broadest, "research" is any effort to learn about the world. It is something that all of us do, at least informally, because acting in the world, whether you are a powerful institution or an ordinary person going about everyday life, requires knowing about the world. The world is a complicated place, though, so sometimes, for some questions, specialized skills and dedicated time, space, and resources can be very useful in doing research.

The thing is, research about the social world is not value neutral. The questions that you ask, the approaches that you take to answering them, the judgements you make about what you learn, and the accountability you enact as you are doing all of that will shape the nuts and bolts of what you do as well as the substance and utility of what you learn. So, for instance, if you give a bunch of money to a university to do research on a particular issue or topic, the work that results may not end up being something that is useful or even particularly respectful towards the communities-in-struggle and grassroots organizations that are directly engaged with that issue. Such communities and organizations, however, do often have urgent needs of their own for clever, creative, well-grounded research responsive to their circumstances as they make decisions about acting in the world. Unfortunately, they often have access to little in the way of resources to make that kind of research happen.

TRACX is a three year-old effort based in the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG) at University of Toronto. It aims to leverage the kinds of expertise and resources that are available in the university context to meet the research needs of communities and grassroots organizations.

One element of their work is matching up student researchers with community organizations that have research needs. TRACX’s commitment is not just to doing this, however, but to doing it in a politically responsible way that centres social justice. TRACX works to make sure that everything about how the research is done flows from the needs of the organization -- that it focuses on the questions they want answered and on methods that fit with their values and goals. They also ensure that all of the work is accountable to the organization. Among other things, all of this involves doing as much as possible to navigate the various paperwork-related and institutional hoops that are often part of university life, so that the organization and the student can focus on the work itself.

The other side of the work that TRACX does is host an annual symposium about whatever has been the focus of that year’s student research. It gives the TRACX student researchers a chance to talk about their work, but it also brings together groups, organizations, community members, and researchers from a much broader area to talk about the issue in an engaged, active way grounded not in academic ways of doing things but in struggles for a better world. Last year, the focus was police violence, while the TRACX symposium happening this fall in Toronto will focus on research to help counter the alt-right.

Lama El-Hanan is an undergraduate student at University of Toronto taking anthropology and near and middle eastern studies. Maverick Smith is a grad student focused on adult education and community development. Both are active with OPIRG. And Rachele Gottardi is the volunteer programming coordinator at OPIRG Toronto. We speak about TRACX, about the politics of research, and about this year’s focus on countering the alt-right.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

The image modified for use in this post was created by YeshaiMishal and is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence.

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