Being Open-minded about Spanning our Boundaries

While I like to think I’m pretty open-minded, this past weekend was a reminder of how much I still need to work at growing my receptiveness to boundary spanning.

I was honoured to be invited to take part in what was billed as an “Aboriginal Thought-Leaders Forum at the prestigious Banff Centre. The wisdom and experience of the predominantly academic participants, in combination with the inspiring mountain views, pushed me to a far greater receptiveness and understanding of narrative inquiry as a means or methodology that can be used to better understand and capture learnings.

To be honest, the first day of the forum did not leave me feeling warm and fuzzy. My predominant reaction to presentations on case studies, ethnography, and other forms of community-based and applied research left me feeling mostly impatient and even somewhat sad and angry. While I understood the value and importance of applied research as an important piece of the puzzle, the reality is that in some aboriginal communities, there is a growing sense of urgency as they mobilize to respond to addictions, health issues, poverty, literacy, and leadership challenges. While valuable, the information being shared by the talented presenters was almost drowned by the voice in my head saying, “Will those I’ve met in Aboriginal communities really care about this? Should this be the priority when people are dying?” While I came looking for answers and solutions, I instead found myself struggling to see how a focus on methodology was going to help.

But, just as I was about to admit I was a misfit and head home, we heard from Dr. Laura Brearly from Australia. Clearly colouring outside the typical lines of academia, she demonstrated how she brings multi-media, poetry, dance, and music into her research. In much of her work she has incorporated the Aboriginal concept of “dadirri” which is building community as the result of deep and respectful listening. Another presenter, Sonia Ospina from the Research Center for Leadership in Action at New York University, provided practical examples of research that used a variety of methodologies to ensure new knowledge while also addressing practical challenges and enhanced practice. Additionally, she stressed the importance of offering immediate and tangible research products for those participating.

For me, those particular teachings reinforced that I could better acknowledge the importance of research in my work but still bend it somewhat in order to make it work more effectively for stakeholders. It also left me with a better understanding of how delivering a program or initiative on the ground could also be a form of critical research if learnings were to be captured using more academically trustworthy methodologies. It would mean our learnings could gain more of the credibility needed to ultimately shape policy decisions and priorities.

While I can’t speak for the others who were in attendance, I don’t think I was the only one who was pushed beyond their own views of what was deemed acceptable research. For some, there was also a growing recognition that research data could be more valuable if it were to be reflected in multiple and alternative ways rather than just those that might reflect our own learning preferences. Many acknowledged there are findings that can’t be captured in written text yet must still be given a voice, and that more creative vehicles are needed if our learnings are to touch hearts and spirits as well as minds.

So while I ultimately left with some answers as well as a much increased receptiveness to research, I also left with a lot of questions. For example, how do we invite academic engagement that avoids intimidation, and how can we best integrate traditional and creative approaches to research?  And, much as I’d like the simplicity of knowing there is one best way, we know that isn’t likely to happen. As with so many other issues and situations these days, there isn’t a best way. There are many ways. And, we’ll never find them unless each of us is willing to stretch beyond our own assumptions, bias, prejudice, ingrained beliefs, and pressures to conform.  Even when we have our doubts, as I did, we must be patient and receptive to others who view through different lenses and offer alternatives. The nature and complexity of today’s challenges in our communities means there has never been a more critical time or need for each of us to be open-minded about new directions and solutions. 

Posted on 04-25-10

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