Models of community engagement: LIP discussion

Lauren Gawne recaps last night’s Linguistics in the Pub, a monthly informal gathering of linguists in Melbourne to discuss topical areas in our field.

This month’s discussion focused on the ways in which we engage with the speakers of the languages that we study. The general understanding of community engagement was work that you do that doesn’t necessarily directly benefit your own linguistic goals, but which will be of benefit or interest to the speakers you work with. Not all engagement is the same though. We had a range of experiences to draw on – although what is always readily apparent in these conversations is that every field site and group of speakers offers a unique situation. As always, please feel free to leave your own experiences in the comments below to broaden the conversation!

Steven Bird, recently returned from fieldwork in South America, was kind enough to share his experiences of working across three different sites in Brazil with us. Steven’s model of fieldwork literally puts the project’s success in the hands of the language speakers, by distributing networked mobile phones with which speakers can record and translate spoken texts. Therefore, having the widest possible number of people participate, and having the approval of community leaders, is vital for his work to be most effective. Things didn’t always work out smoothly, with the first community chief failing to take interest in the project as Steven hadn’t brought the internet with him (a logistically impossible task that Steven had not actually promised). Without the approval of the chief it became difficult to work with many people in the community. In the second village Steven presented the project as an exchange from the outset, but instead of being interested in any linguistic outputs, the community requested that Steven pay for the concrete floor of a community computer centre.

Steven’s experiences involved several themes that came up throughout the rest of the discussion. The first is why we do community engagement, the second is what we do to enact community engagement and the third is the benefits and problems that can come from building this into our work expectation. I’ll go through each of these topics in turn.

The general consensus at the discussion evening was that community engagement is something that we do because we like the people that we work with. We feel thankful for their time and effort and want to share a richer relationship with these groups of people rather than just as an outsider who turns up occasionally. Of course, LIP participants form a rather a self selecting survey group, and there are other more prosaic motivations for trying to engage people in our work. The first is that there is a general agreement that we have a duty to the people we work with to make our interaction mutually beneficial, and not just about collecting data for ourselves. The other reason is that a more engaged community may be more willing to help you in your work, although there is a possibility that they will become more focused on the collaborative project and this can take away your time from your more academic aims. Finally, there is a general feeling that funding and ethics bodies look more favourably on projects that involve some time of collaborative work, and the media and general public certainly do. While all of this can sound like rather cynical motivations for collaboration, there is not use pretending that everything we do is about the warm-and-fuzzy factor.

In terms of what we do when we participate in collaboration, there were a few parameters and variations that are worth discussing. The way you engage with a community depends on the structure of that group, and your place within it. For communities that have hierarchical leadership, such as Steven’s Brazilian chief, it may be best to engage with the community through these formalised channels. Others who work for extended periods in communities with official leaders say that over time they move towards paying official deference to them, but work more with other members of the community to avoid being caught up accidentally in local politics. Sometimes there may be both a local leadership structure and a separate language authority, which can make navigating who to work with difficult. There are also situations where the community is spread out, or where there are no formalised leadership structures. This is the case in the Yolmo communities where I work, where the household is the highest formalised unit of organisation. In these situations people felt that trying to work with as many individuals as possible, and engaging socially with others, was the closest that we could come to engaging with ‘the community’ instead of a small subset of individuals.

Even those who worked with official community structures never felt that they had full community participation, instead many collaborative efforts occur when working with one or two particularly motivated members of the community who take an in interest in our work. Therefore ‘community engagement’ can vary between projects (or even between fieldtrips) in regards to just how many people are engaged. There also appeared to be a difference in the effectiveness of different engagement attempts dependent on whether the community was interested in their own language or not. Another difference is that those who do urban fieldwork in their own city of residence may feel that community engagement can become very time consuming.

In regards to the type of collaborative work we participate in, there were two broad categories discussed. The first is collaboration on language-based projects, and the second is other types of engagement. Linguistic collaborations may have more or less direct relevance to your own project work. It may involve making a dictionary or phrase book, or recording and writing out stories or other folk knowledge. Just how much this is useful to your work depends on your work methods and project aims. A dictionary will not take as much time away from your own work if you make it out of the lexical database in your FLeX/Toolbox project, and traditional stories may be a genre that can be used in your analysis. The finer points of these projects do often involve many of the skills we already have as language documentation workers, although they can be time consuming to produce, both for you and the people you are working with.

One type of language-based work that was discussed was that of Bible translations, or helping to reprint existing religous materials. Of course, for some people this is the major motivation for engaging with communities in the first place. For others, participating in this community-reqested work is something that they may not feel comfortable doing. It’s worth acknowledging that this is a decision people will have to make, and how they may feel about it.

Just because we are there as people interested in the local language, this does not always mean that the community are interested in engaging in this work. We talked about how community engagement may actually involve other things. The majority of the time this can involve purchasing things for the community. Examples that came up quite often involved the linguist being called on to provide something that would be used. Examples from our discussion involved purchasing concrete to make a floor, plastic flowers and, of course, the internet. Sometimes the requests can be financially onerous, and generally fall outside the scope of fieldwork funding, while other times it can be as simple as filming the local football game.

This lead to an interesting discussion about what limits people had for their community engagement. There was a lot of discussion from people who worked in the north of Australia about local people (not friends of the fieldworker necessarily) asking for money or goods. While this may seem like an uncomfortable interaction for most linguists, there is a cultural perspective to it as well. In some communities it is just a way to have some level of interaction with outsiders, in others the expectation is that the person will say ‘no’ and it’s more of a game than an expectation. On some level, choosing to participate in these interactions is a form of community engagement. Ina similar manner, deciding whether to drink the locally made alcohol, or live with a family are also, on some level community engagement choices that some people in some fieldsites will have to make as well, as it can affect their relationship with the people they work with.

The final theme that came out of the discussion is the benefits and downsides to various models of community engagement. The first thing people felt was that any community engagement they participated in generally increased goodwill and opened up many opportunities. Where the engagement focused on linguistic materials people felt that more often than not this enriched their own work as well as providing something that the speakers wanted. There are the realities of how much time, or money, that are given over to community engagement – this won’t always be something that can be written into the project timeline or expenses, although it would be nice for it to be acknowledged more formally as a part of our work. Each group that we work with have a different set of expectations and interests, and different linguists may be better at engaging with communities in certain ways – but it’s something to certainly strive for.

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