This essay offers an overview of the purpose of Action Research Communities (ARCs) in the Action Research Network of the Americas (ARNA) and our role as ARC Co-Chairs in promoting and supporting the ARCs before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. The essay begins with a brief discussion about our perspectives on collaborative action research as an avenue for grassroots change and the democratization of knowledge, and our support for ARNA as an organization whose mission aligns with our stance as anti-racist counselor educators. We consider challenges and benefits of professional networking and the ways in which ARNA supports research from a wide range of stakeholders, including academics, practitioners, community-based organizers, and youth from all over the Americas and beyond. The focus of this manuscript is on the approach we took, in the context of the global pandemic, to forge and sustain connections with the ARCs and to encourage their active participation in the ARNA 2021 virtual conference hosted by our ARNA colleagues in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Some ARC members were discouraged and stalled in their research because of the pandemic, and feelings of shame and disappointment exacerbated their reluctance to attend ARNA 2021. We hoped that our background as counselor educators would help us to foster a safe, warm, and accepting environment in which folks could share their feelings and be themselves. With encouraging messages and the creative use of technology (much of which was new to us), we were able to support the creation of two additional ARCs, attract new ARC members, and bring several disillusioned researchers back into active participation in ARNA. We review the various activities we developed for ARNA 2021 to lift up the ARCs and promote connection, healing, and a bit of fun. We end with reflections and a brief outline of future directions.
The primary motivation for this essay is connected to our desire to share the approach we have taken as Co-Chairs of the ARNA ARCs to cultivate an inclusive and welcoming environment for current ARC members and an open invitation to ARNA members to be supported in developing new ARCs and/or strengthening the practice of existing ARCs. The ARCs are subgroups of ARNA members who engage in research and collaboration during the months between the annual conferences, and who join together to submit conference proposals as well. ARCs are developed in the context of a single discipline, like School Counseling; or they may be formed from a larger pool of stakeholders with overlapping interests, as in the Health Equity ARC, which connects professionals in nursing with other members of the healthcare system. Although our own research takes place in education, we see this essay as relevant to people engaged in a wide range of settings and we are excited about the transdisciplinary applications of the essay and the potential for transdisciplinary practice through the ARCs. As is often the case in our own field of school counseling, we found ourselves having to improvise quickly when the pandemic prompted the shutdown of our institutions, halted in-person instruction and events, and postponed the 2020 ARNA conference, and we were called upon to respond creatively by discovering unexpected strengths in ourselves as educators in online settings. We used this new skill set to design an original and innovative series of conference events that proved to be a highlight of the virtual ARNA 2021 conference. The feedback we received led us to believe that, while at the time we were simply trying to adapt to unforeseen and highly stressful changes in our professional lives as a result of the pandemic, what we prepared for the ARNA 2021 conference could ultimately be of benefit to others engaged in action research and seeking connection and community in the midst of the pandemic. We wished to share these “silver linings” in this essay, in the hopes that others might experience the same type of hope and optimism that we felt during and after ARNA 2021 about virtual community building.
Action Research Communities: Reimagining Networking and Collaboration in a Global Pandemic
The Action Research Network of the Americas (ARNA) showcases action research projects in community-based and educational settings (Shosh, 2013) and actively supports the development of engaged subgroups with shared interests through the Action Research Communities, or ARCs (https://arnawebsite.org/arcs/). The authors of this manuscript have been active members of ARNA since the inaugural conference in 2013 and ARC Co-Chairs since 2019. As school counselor educators, we are keenly aware of the potential for and risks of professional isolation and the benefits of networking and developing collaborative partnerships. In the field of school counseling, professional isolation is common (Bemak, 2000; Stone-Johnson, 2016; Thomas, 2005; Thomas et al., 2009), and cultivating connections and partnerships is a longstanding challenge (Bemak, 2000; Thomas, 2017). We are champions of action research partnership models in school-university settings because of the mutual benefits resulting from these efforts (Rowell, 2005; Thomas, 2017; Thomas et al., 2009), the value of teaching pre-service counselors to engage in evidence-based practice to make tangible improvements in their school settings (Rowell, 2005, 2006), and the ways in which action research raises the professional profile of the K-12 school counselor (Rowell, 2005, 2006; Thomas, 2017).
We love collaborative action research because of its emphasis on reflective practice (Cabaroglu, 2014; Mertler, 2012) and its rejection of traditional, top-down research models (Brydon-Miller et al., 2003; Gillies, 1993), and because it lends itself to community engagement and partnerships across groups of people with different levels of or access to power and knowledge (e.g., academics and practitioners, youth and adults) (Shosh, 2013). In our professional niche of school counselor preparation, this collaborative approach is important because of pressure on school counselors to practice data-driven interventions (DeKruyf et al., 2013; Gillies, 1993; Rowell, 2005, 2006; Stone-Johnson, 2016) and to evolve in an ever-changing landscape (Bemak, 2000). School counseling action research provides an avenue for empowerment of both practitioners and graduate students and has resulted in productive partnerships which we have both overseen in our roles as supervisors and counselor educators (Thomas, 2017).
Energized by participating in groups where power is shared and where the spoken messages and enacted behaviors of the collective are congruent with their commitment to dismantling systems that have traditionally oppressed marginalized populations, we experience ARNA as a dynamic, diverse group of people dedicated to grassroots change in multiple arenas, who participate in and contribute to knowledge democracy. We thrive in environments where inclusivity is not merely given lip service but is genuinely valued, and where power dynamics are not only named but thoughtfully (re)examined and interrogated in an effort to move toward true inclusivity and mutual empowerment. We are committed to the principles of anti-racism, liberatory practices, and abolitionist education (Kendi, 2019; Love, 2019). As school counselor educators, we study these standards in the context of counseling (American School Counselor Association, 2021) with our graduate students. Together with our students, we explore what it means to be anti-racist, emancipatory school counselors. ARNA is a primary space in which our scholarly interests and our belief systems as anti-racist educators are welcomed and even celebrated.
Our history with ARNA meant that we were familiar with the varied levels of productivity in the ARCS and the need not only to highlight the successes of ARCs, but also to support fledgling or struggling ARCs, to identify research areas that might lead to the formation of additional ARCs, and to promote a model of overlapping ARCs to allow for branching out beyond a specific ARC’s focus to forge unique and exciting transdisciplinary research collaborations. While we imagined that there would be obstacles along with joys in supporting ARNA in this role, there have been some experiences that we could not have conceived or anticipated. This surprising blend of challenges and successes represents the focus of this manuscript. We will describe the context for the ARCs, the value of networking to decrease isolation and afford opportunities for research partnerships and friendships to emerge, and the goals we continue to explore for the ARCs in collaboration with the ARNA community. Specific attention will be paid to the ways in which we developed an ARC strand during the 2021 virtual ARNA conference and the dark clouds and silver linings that have evolved in the COVID-19 pandemic as we sought creative ways to reach the ARCs and increase our technological and digital literacies with the goal of showcasing the ARC model in ARNA. We hope that this manuscript might add to a growing body of work related to guidance about online conference components during the global pandemic (e.g., Eddy et al., 2021; Pedaste & Kasemets, 2020; Phelps, 2020).
Context for the ARCs in ARNA: Building Bridges for Research and Community
The concept of the Action Research Community originated at the ARNA 2015 conference in Toronto. Dr. Candace Kaye coined the term with the acronym “ARC” as a symbol to represent the bridges linking research communities together between annual conferences. Each ARC would engage in research and collaboration throughout the year and offer a space for researchers from similar backgrounds to brainstorm ideas, share projects, and develop conference proposals to present at ARNA. There are 10 ARNA ARCs, from the well-established STAR-C to the freshly minted Addressing Food Insecurity and Musical Learning Community/Comunidad de Aprendizaje Musical ARCS. The chairs of these two newest ARCS have aspirations for a cross-ARC collaboration, an exciting initiative that reflects our primary goals as ARC Co-Chairs, to support new ARCs and promote cross-ARC collaboration.
The ARCs exist as networking subgroups in ARNA. While networking presents opportunities and challenges in any profession and at any time (Ansmann et al., 2014), the practice of supporting and expanding the ARC networks during the pandemic involved some unique complications. In medical education, networks have been cited for responding collaboratively to COVID-19-related professional preparation issues (Keegan & Bannister, 2020). The ARC concept is perhaps similar to “Communities of Practice” in education, management, and healthcare, which emphasize organizational networks where individuals with mutual interests come together to share best practices (Patton & Parker, 2017; Probst & Borzillo, 2008). Virtual communities of practice existed pre-pandemic and offered support for productive online collaboration to reduce isolation (Ceran & Bahadir, 2019; McLoughlin et al., 2018). Recent recommendations such as “online morning huddles” for faculty teaching remotely reinforce the importance of creative networking (Kotera et al., 2020). Eddy et al. (2021) underscore the perceived value of faculty networking and recommend translating these practices into remote platforms. Although some organizations previously held virtual conferences, Phelps (2020) notes that there has never been a greater demand to move into remote settings. Our background as school counselor educators makes us sensitive to the impact of professional isolation and eager to uncover strategies for alleviating this stressor among ARC members.
Adapting to and Embracing a Virtual Arena for ARNA 2021: Creative Responses to the Global Pandemic
The plan we developed to highlight the presence of the ARCs in ARNA for the 2020 conference in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, was postponed to 2021 because of COVID-19, where many of us hoped to meet in person. Ultimately, ARNA made the decision to hold the conference virtually, and our wonderful colleagues in Puerto Vallarta hosted the event. The ARC theme was evident prior to and throughout the conference in the activities described in the following sections.
Needs Assessments: Seeking to Understand the Emotional Landscape of ARNA Members
Recent research illustrated the effects of the pandemic on scholarly progress and professional well-being (Byrom, 2020; Webber et al., 2021). We conducted needs assessments to understand how ARCs were faring. The theme of grief and loss was emergent in an initial survey, and we incorporated it into pre-conference communications, hoping that members might know they were not alone and that ARNA could offer much needed community and support (https://spark.adobe.com/page/ocydv9gbfEtCJ/). Inspired by Aubrey’s research on grief and loss (Uresti, 2013), we aimed to directly address potential losses that might interfere with members’ capacity to pursue their research agendas agendas for research and knowledge mobilization, as well as their efforts in activism toward social change. We found that, by destigmatizing missed research opportunities and decreased productivity and normalizing feelings of grief related to personal and professional losses, we reintegrated members and invited them to share stories at ARNA 2021. We entered the 2021 conference knowing that some members had experienced the illness or death of loved ones, that research agendas were stalled or ceased, and that, despite losses, there was an increased commitment to building relationships and feeling connected.
Incorporating New Technological Skills: A Steep but Rewarding Learning Curve!
We support using humor, grounded in theory and research, in teaching counseling (Uresti & Thomas, 2022). We incorporated humor in ARNA 2021, hoping that the invitation to laugh and be playful might alleviate the collective stress and isolation that ARNA members experienced in the wake of COVID-19 and offer a tangible sense of connection throughout our first virtual conference. Our training in psychodrama (Corey, 2017; Moreno & Moreno, 1969) and playback theater (Boal, 2002) lent itself well to the use of what we anticipated would be fun interludes, such as the Zoom orchestra, in which attendees “played” instruments by making sounds as we directed the virtual orchestra with lively prompts, hand motions, and verbal encouragement. The laughter and collective silliness generated during these activities gave us all a palpable sense of relief and togetherness.
We sought out online workshops and completed professional development courses to acquire new technological classroom skills, which we applied to our work with ARNA and the ARCs. Admittedly, this was a major pedagogical shift for us, as we had been staunch advocates of in-person instruction for counselor preparation. Circumstances may have forced us into a virtual classroom in 2020; nevertheless, our commitment to being lifelong learners motivated us to grow and adapt. Through thoughtful development, we discovered effective methods of teaching even the most “hands-on” counseling topics via Zoom. Our creativity and steadfast efforts in the virtual classroom were recognized by our respective institutions with awards for innovative pedagogy. For ARNA, we developed short videos, eye-catching pre-conference fliers, and a series of engaging activities designed to showcase the ARCs. Aligned with ARNA’s focus on multivocality, we presented all materials in English and Spanish.
“Brain Breaks”: Graduate Student Contributions to the Practice of Self-Care in ARNA 2021
As part of the planning team for ARNA 2021, we recognized the potential for attendee fatigue and the need for intentional, interactive breaks so that conference-goers could recharge between sessions. Aubrey offered an online teaching tool called “Brain Breaks” that she had adapted for use with graduate students. We both understood that time spent learning online feels different than in-person time. While Zoom can be a dynamic learning platform, the field of vision can appear static over time, contributing to confusion, decreased concentration, and lowered stamina. In pivoting to a virtual conference, we believed that breaks to refocus conference attendees and support their transition could be even more meaningful than in an in-person context.
Graduate students at San José State University, where Aubrey works as a counselor educator, learned about brain breaks by having them modeled by Aubrey during class. They developed their own brain breaks and collaborated to record a series of asynchronous bilingual brain breaks that were featured at ARNA 2021, including mindfulness; art; somatic engagement; and a spirit of playfulness, imagination, and creativity. The brain break series became a conference highlight, as participants could, at any time during the conference, recenter through guided breathing, destress with metaphorical lemonade, or unwind through a comical enactment.
Brown Bags: Thematic Lunchtime Talks Aimed at Building Self-Awareness and Community
We hoped that our training in relational and communication skills, group facilitation, and interpersonal dynamics would help us to create interactive spaces for dialogue and relationship-building. The brown bag sessions were connected to weekly conference themes and informed by Charlene Carruthers’s (2018) Five Questions, which we translated into Spanish. Carruthers’s work supports our commitment to anti-racist practice and aligns with the ARNA mission. This basic structure supported discussion without dictating its direction, and various platforms engaged participants in conversation, including Google Doc for written responses, an image-based Jamboard, and a Padlet (https://padlet.com/) for reflection through music or poetry. An artifact from a brown bag discussion can be found in this Jamboard: https://jamboard.google.com/d/1Lp4Tb_xaWqwnGBMX7uWXdNmaSw_jRzYMciOXkxVdPtk/viewer?f=2. Along with technology, the live discussion involved the expression of feelings and real time connections. Through the brown bag sessions, we also welcomed several new members to one or more of the ARCs.
Conference Presentations: A Forum for Sharing Action Research Process and Products
Perhaps the most traditional activities we developed for ARNA 2021 involved conference presentations. We co-moderated a research symposium featuring chairs from three ARCs at different stages of development and productivity during the pandemic. Each chair offered a unique lens and contribution through a presentation about the ARC’s research goals, capacity for carrying out projects during the pandemic, and any obstacles they were experiencing. We endeavored to foster a warm, welcoming platform for the sharing of successes, places of stuckness, and requests for collaboration. Our hope was to support new connections beyond the conference. We invited ARC chairs to follow the session with a short video and were delighted to receive videos from the Musical Learning Community and the STAR-C, which we added to the ARC Spark page on the ARNA website.
Together with Jasmin Herrera, a graduate student from San José State University, we prepared a bilingual conference session exploring the importance of self-care during the COVID-19 pandemic. Designed to offer frameworks for conceptualizing self-care, along with research regarding its importance, our presentation encouraged attendees to engage in breathing meditation, guided imagery, and mindful reflection. We hoped that by modeling self-care exercises in real time, we could demonstrate that self-care can involve simple actions. In addition, by leading participants through their own self-care assessment, we aimed to show that focusing on small, sustainable changes can result in lasting success. Finally, this faculty-student collaboration reflected the ARNA commitment to shared power and our own reliance on mutual empowerment and emancipatory practices.
Networking: Taking Time for Fun and Games!
As noted above, networking is a rewarding activity but one that holds inherent difficulties within a profession and additional obstacles when trying to cross disciplinary boundaries; on top of these issues, the multiple, ongoing challenges related to COVID-19 weigh heavily on us as we try to imagine the future in our respective research communities. At ARNA 2021, we developed a bilingual networking session intended to help introduce the ARCs and welcome new ARC members or ideas for additional ARCs. We began with a psychodramatic activity in which participants introduced themselves from the perspective of someone who loves them, speaking in that individual’s voice and using their mannerisms. We created a Jeopardy-style game (see https://www.playfactile.com) where ARNA members teamed up to answer questions we had created that were specifically focused on ARNA history, the function of the ARCs, and the virtual setting of Puerto Vallarta. This lighthearted activity was well received by ARNA members and allowed us all to share some good spirited competition and connection. While some recent research found that the most difficult aspect of online conferences during COVID-19 was connected to socializing, especially for participants from different time zones (Pedaste & Kasemets, 2020), we were pleased to see that the social, less formal networking times proved to be successful in promoting a sense of belonging and encouraging members to increase their involvement in ARNA.
Post-ARNA 2021: Ongoing Efforts at Connection and Collaboration
We offered a summary of our activities at the closing session of ARNA 2021 (https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/17VqrGqdpZuYZPw6EFrQo91TbcWV8V738/edit?usp=sharing&ouid=105677225457636402345&rtpof=true&sd=true), and received positive feedback and encouragement to keep the momentum going through “Zoom mixers” in late summer and fall of 2021. While attendance at these events was lower than we hoped, we remain unrelenting in our commitment to ongoing promotion of the ARCs. We also realize that our collective newfound familiarity with Zoom since 2020 means increased opportunities to connect with researchers from all over the world– an unexpected and exciting “silver lining” of the pandemic. We plan to continue to hone our skill sets and to use technology to maintain and increase ARC connections. The most recent update at the time of writing this manuscript involves the infusion of new energy into the Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) ARC with leadership by Dane Stickney from the University of Colorado-Denver. As school counselor educators and former K-12 school counselors, we are especially excited about youth-led research, and we have actively supported plans for a YPAR ARC winter “Youth Voice and Research Showcase” in 2022.
Reflections, Lessons Learned, and Future Directions
As reflective practitioners and lifelong learners, we regularly examine our research goals and interests and seek avenues and communities to grow as scholars. Although the global pandemic initially represented an interruption to the traditional ARNA conference format and a significant shift in our professional lives, we responded to those changes and challenges by seeking new skills as well as relying on our foundation and training as counselors and teachers. We were surprised by the joy of reimagining our work in a remote format and developing experiential activities in a virtual setting. As has been the case for us in our field of school counselor education, we experienced and witnessed mutual benefits of collaborative partnerships with our ARNA colleagues and appreciated the strengthened relationships that emerged during ARNA 2021 and the plans that we co-created for moving forward. We will continue to promote the healthy growth of Action Research Communities through ARNA and to support their efforts to contribute to knowledge democracy and mutual empowerment through the practice of action research. Our evolving appreciation of the virtual community-building opportunities that emerged through the pandemic has led us to believe that our collective capacity for forging global connections is deeper than we knew, and we welcome this realization with open minds and hearts.
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To cite this work, please use the following reference:
Uresti, A. & Thomas, S. (2022, January 21). Action research communities: Reimagining networking and collaboration in a global pandemic. Social Publishers Foundation. https://www.socialpublishersfoundation.org/knowledge_base/action-research-communities-reimagining-networking-and-collaboration-in-a-global-pandemic/