Student-led initiative to reflect upon identities, positionality and power in sustainability research

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University of Waterloo Environmental Building 3 Exterior, Source: University of Waterloo website

In March 2021, University of Waterloo students delivered a three-part workshop series to address the gaps they noted within sustainability research.

“This workshop series, designed by students and for students, was a call to collaboratively explore the issues of identity, positionality, and power and their implications on the way graduate research is conducted,” said Lowine Hill, a doctoral researcher who co-delivered the workshop.

Together with Hill, Madu Galappaththi and Sarah Ghorpade also co-designed and delivered the workshop in partnership with the Student Teaching Excellence Committee (STEC).

The students noticed issues around sustainability research, including the dominance of Western-centric approaches and a lack of awareness of the need for researchers to reflect upon their own social position and role. 

The workshop sought to address these gaps by encouraging students to lead respectful research. This includes work that is context-aware, mindful of local practices and sensitive to the identities and lived experiences of individuals and groups in different study contexts. The workshop also emphasized that academia should be reciprocal, breaking away from the commonly extractive nature of research.

“As a culturally diverse group of students, we recognize both the urgency of this issue and the need to initiate systemic and transformational change from the bottom up,” Hill said.

The workshop filled up to full capacity within 24 hours of the announcement, and it received a positive response from the environment graduate student community.

“Each workshop had a unique theme that we explored, first with the help of guest speakers, then in small group discussions,” said Ghorpade.

The three consecutive sessions were: (i) Becoming: Identifying sources of power and privilege; (ii) Unlearning: Decolonising the research process; and (iii) Relearning: Bringing other voices and epistemologies into the center of the research process. Guest speakers for the sessions included Sara Anderson from the Office of Research and Christopher Taylor from the faculty of arts.

Jean Audrey, a professor and dean of the faculty of environment, launched the final session of the workshop. It included a panel discussion with a focus on strategies and specific actions that students can take to conduct respectful research. The panellists included Janice Barry, Kelsey Leonard and Andrew Trant from the faculty of environment, as well as Lori Campbell from the Indigenous Student Centre.

The first iteration of the series focused on the field of sustainability, which was the research focus of the three students. However, the students pointed out that this problem exists across all disciplines and should be addressed regardless of the subject area.

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