Prior to the release of CBRC’s Research Principles, our Research Director, Nathan Lachowsky, and two of our Research Managers, Anu Radha Verma and Ben Klassen, sat down to talk about the development of the principles and their importance in our future work.
How were you engaged in the development of the principles?
Nate: When I got the opportunity to start with CBRC as Research Director, it was a time of change in terms of who was there, and the work that was happening. In many ways, and like many folks in the sector, we just did the work. What that means is that we have these implicit values that each of us operate from. It became clear over time as we kept doing different kinds of projects, that it would be useful to have something… We've actually spent years thinking about this, probably decades to be fair!
Ben: I was involved in a lot of the formative parts of the work, taking some of these disparate pieces where we articulated some principles, or how we do our work, like the G.R.O.W. + L.I.F.T. checklist and document that Travis [Salway] and other folks had put together several years ago. As the organization grew, and we didn't necessarily have a shared sense across the organization of what our research should look like, it became more and more important for us to get this down on paper. The other piece was just around the expansion of the communities that we work with and the recognition that a lot of our work had really centered white, cisgender, gay men… I think the principles [are] forcing us to be critical of that history as we expand in terms of the communities that we're working with and think critically about health equity and whose voices we’re foregrounding now.
Anu: What's been driving me to keep this work going is the very aspirational nature of this. I don't want this to be a pat on the back to be like we're doing all these things and we're really great about it, because saying that is going to alienate some of the folks that we've been trying to partner with, or collaborate with, or gain the trust of, even, at minimum. If we say these are some things that we recognize as existing in the worlds that we move in, whether those are society at large, academic institutions, the research environment, or the so-called 2S/LGBTQ+ sector, these are the ways that we think we can… try to push the boulder up the hill, somehow, with a little bit of leverage. [It’s] been interesting to think about this principles document as a way of having sometimes difficult conversations with other people in the organization. I never assume that there’s solidarity across experience. I think that doing that is really dangerous. When we came to the all-staff meeting and talked through the principles, I was in the small group where we were talking about partnerships and this big question about accountability [came up]. When we're in a tough spot with somebody that we are, on paper, agreeing to work with for 5 years for millions of dollars, how do we actually say we're gonna be accountable to this set of principles or ways of working, and also we're hoping and expecting that you will too. I'm excited because there's big possibilities, and also very curious about how this will be taken up and how it's received.
Nathan: One of the things I found quite interesting about the process as we've shared it with different groups, like our research affiliates or at our staff meeting, is how quickly the conversation moves from the content of the principles to the application of them… how we make decisions about ethics, protocols, or who we include on advisory boards, or the language that we use on advertisements on social media… I am really interested to see what reactions are to this document. Part of this has also been recognizing that there are other communities who have articulated these kinds of research principles or protocols for working with their communities. I think about First Nations and Indigenous communities, I think about Black communities, and we make quick reference to those at the beginning of this document. We want to make sure that we're being mindful of having our work in relation to their work, and these are obviously communities that overlap too.
Ben: I think of our Two-Spirit program and some of the work that Jessy [Dame] and others are leading and we’re already doing that in those research activities. But within some of our other research work, what does it mean to really center Indigenous communities and to be doing work in Indigenous ways?
What are the goals of articulating these principles?
Ben: Ultimately, what we're trying to get at is research governance – it's about who should be in the driver seat of research. When we talk about the spectrum of CBR, a lot of CBR is academics in the driver seat with this really superficial engagement of community, and what we're trying to articulate here is the importance of ensuring that community really is centered in the work and leading the work, and ultimately governing the work. To me, that's the critical intervention here.
Nathan: Some of this, in that sense of governance, is where do we step up, where do we step back, right? How do we change the way that we work? We often just default to the way that it's been done before, the way that we're trained to do, and if we really want to do things differently, that is going to require some form of disruption. Sometimes we really struggle with how to answer that question of like, “not this” or “do this instead.” It's really hard to run these big projects across a huge geography, across a very diverse community, and be able to maintain the conversation with folks. And some of that's been more difficult with COVID, but I think, even before that there is this piece of how do we stay in conversation with everyone?
One of the things I’ve been reflecting on is that sometimes from an academic lens, CBRC is the community partner, and when I talk to folks at CBRC, your view is that there often is community out there that we want to connect with… I do think there’s this interesting piece of “who is the community in this?” And even though we have a Two-Spirit program, even though we have lots of 2SLGBTQ+ folks on the team, still I think there's quite a push to think about who are the folks that are most marginalized, most impacted. And, of course, some of those people are reflected in our team as well, but there's a difference in really thinking about getting out to the little “c” community, that isn't necessarily just an organization.
How can these principles be used in partnerships?
Ben: One of the things that I’m the most excited about with the principles is that it will allow us to be like, hey, these are the ways that we aspire to do the work at CBRC and we really need you to share some of these underlying values if we're gonna partner together on work moving forward.
Anu: I feel like we also need to educate our academic partners about what it means to do community partnership, and also what do you get when you partner with CBRC? Who’s the “we?” – that’s always what I’m asking when we say community-based – who's the community that we're talking about? Sometimes that includes our staff because we're all community members, but there's lots of things that are not included, experiences that are not included in the “we.” So, how do we turn that on its head? That means re-envisioning how we do research, which is why we need the revolution.
Principles you feel especially strong about?
Anu: I have many favourites amongst the principles but the historically informed one is really important to honour CBRC’s origin story and thinking about the ways that during a time of a lot of pain and grief in community, people needed to also do all of this other kind of organizing [to ensure] people's lives were valued by other folks in community or other folks within the system but also to say “we know best”… I’ve been thinking about how we can be historically informed by non-research activism that's happened across Canada or North America, and particularly I’m thinking about the work of Black and Indigenous, and people of colour activists… This is the work that really excites me, and so if we learn about how people did it without funding, without organizations and without infrastructure, that could give us some really important historically informed ways of doing this work. We can't pretend that we're the first ones. I get really annoyed when people are like, “we're doing this for the first time.” Like, no, we're really not.
Ben: The historically informed piece, that's really important because we are building on the movements and the community activism that came before us. But we have to be critical of that history and who's been left out of it, and a lot of our work now is speaking to who's been foregrounded in this work and who’s been left out of it. Around advancing social justice, [CBRC] started off, long before any of us were here, as really an activist organization, and one of the tensions that we need to navigate as we grow is how we maintain those activist roots as we secure more funding, as we build new partnerships, as we grow closer in some ways to academic institutions. Fundamentally, that's what makes our work important and valuable, so how do we continue advancing social justice even as we become embedded in some of these larger systems? I think it's going to be one of the tensions that we need to navigate moving forward as an organization.
Nathan: I think of this work as part of the intervention and if we are caught up in doing the work and never stop to think about it, and to assert how we want to do it, then that's part of the system getting what it needs out of all of this work. Thanks to the folks who take the time to read this blog and reflect a little bit on their practice.
Click here to read CBRC’s Research Principles.