It’s been 40 years since I graduated from Barnett House. Since then I have changed disciplines (from social policy to law), I have changed continents (from Europe to North America), I have changed professions (from practitioner to academic) and I have changed legal status (from single to married mother of 3). And yet I am still doing what I was doing when I embarked on my first job (a job I got thanks to my Barnett House mentor, Teresa Smith) and what I have, in one way or another done ever since. It can be summed up in two words: action research. Or two other words, academic activism.
The job I got thanks to Barnett House was as a “researcher” on a community development project, a CDP, in Saltley, inner city Birmingham. We were a team of academics, lawyers, welfare rights activists, environmental, housing and policy experts, working on a range of social and economic issues in a run down, multi ethnic urban setting.
At present I am engaged in several different action-research projects that are centered on the enhancement of economic and social rights for marginalized adolescent populations. One such project – the Champions project – is based in India. I see it as an anti trafficking project. It has nothing directly to do with trafficking. But it has everything to do with preventing trafficking because we know from decades of uncontested research that quality education is one of the best conduits to social justice and mobility we have. A girl with an education has safer and better future options than one without. She has much less chance of making risky decisions to secure opportunity; she is more likely to have the capacity to withstand violence and exploitation. As an African women’s rights organizer noted, a school uniform signals “I am not available” for sexual exploitation or early marriage. So we are studying educational success among dalit or very low caste rural girls, trying to understand what the triggers for educational success are so that they can be scaled. Our study has involved in depth surveys – culling both quantitative and qualitative data – in 2 large states in India, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. We hope to get funding for a third state – Uttar Pradesh – in due course. We are looking at “champions” who we define in a very simple way: girls, in their second year of university, both of whose parents are illiterate. Our research question: how did these girls make it to university in one generation? How, in other words, did they become positive deviants? What can we learn from their experience?
Another project I am working on concerns adolescent Roma in Europe. We, the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard, are working with Roma (and non Roma) adolescents and our NGO partners– at the moment in 3 countries, Serbia, Romania and Italy – on a participatory research project that probes discrimination and stigma in the majority community. A practitioner team of lawyers, community and social workers and psychologists, together with our team of researchers, collaborating with adolescents recruited by the community organizations. The adolescents are the (paid) researchers, the informants are social workers, teachers, parents of peers, police, politicians. The goal is to understand why and how exclusion happens, in the educational, training and employment context, and what steps can be taken to redress it. Again the goal is to generate options for more robust engagement with the majority institutions and reverse the devastating exclusion of past decades and centuries which has led to profound poverty, illiteracy, health and housing deficits.
Perhaps I have come full circle, through a somewhat tortuous route, back to the community based work that my MSc in Applied Social Studies at Barnett House all those years ago launched me on. Thank you very much for that training.