This short essay explores why I recently created a website to digitally codify a slice of my life work in feminist participatory action research and teacher action research. My website – part repository, part memoir, https://www.patriciamaguire.net/backstories.html, includes freely downloadable PDF files of publications, presentations, and teaching resources. In this essay, I briefly explore why I included personal Backstories to accompany some of the materials. As a counter narrative to the supposed objectivity of knowledge creators, backstories help us understand and get a fix on action researchers’ life histories, identities, and positionalities, all of which inform our work. I hope my website is inspirational in several ways. Perhaps you will be inspired to consider how you intentionally address the intersections of gender, race, class, and other identities and power relations in your own work. Finally, we all have stories to tell about our journey into participatory research, feminist or otherwise. What’s your story?
Room 7 and a Feminist Participatory Action Research Website
In late March 2020, I never suspected that the Covid19 pandemic lockdowns and self-imposed quarantines would last so long. Like many re-purposed, i.e. retired, participatory action researchers, I am privileged to afford to hunker down safely at home. I’m not naïve or callous about the health dangers and economic challenges others face. I worry endlessly about our daughters, one of whom is a doctor on the front line of Covid care. But that’s another story.
After the initial flurry of lock-down phone calls to catch up with far away friends and cleaning out closets, what next? How could I use the unexpected gift of physically distanced, alone time to do something of possible value? A hopeless dung beetle, I had a roomful – Room 7 in fact – of files, books, presentations notes, Omega 100 Zip discs, and ephemera from thirty plus years of my participatory action research life. Keenly aware that someday our daughters would simply dump all this stuff, I dug in. In fairness to our daughters, retirees have learned our adult children do not want our furniture or travel souvenirs; and no one wants our undigitalized professional papers and PowerPoints.
Room 7 is a space of my own. It’s where I retreat to write, create torn-paper cards, draw zentangles, listen to NPR, and reflect. It’s where I created my pandemic project – a website[i], https://www.patriciamaguire.net/backstories.html. My website is a slice of my life work in feminist participatory action research and teacher action research. It’s part repository, part memoir. The website includes easily, freely downloadable PDF files of publications, presentations, and teaching resources. Backstories accompany some of the materials.
Participatory Action Research has always presented itself as an alternative to traditional social science research, by intentionally combining research, education, and action for meaningful change and the further development of critical consciousness. Because knowledge is socially constructed, PAR asks us to pay attention to the power dynamics of research and action. Researchers are social beings, with beliefs, biases, and baggage. Among other factors, PAR counters the passive voice, supposed objectivity, and researcher distance from the researched expected by traditional social science. Feminist-informed action research pushes us even further. Feminist PAR/AR theorizes gender for women and men, girls and boys. It pushes us to examine the intersection of our identities in our work (Reid & Frisby, 2008; Maguire, 2001).
As an extension to the Publications and Presentations sections, the Backstories section is in the tradition of the feminist declaration that “the personal is political” (Hanisch, 1970). Feminists redefined what is worthy of analyses by erasing the boundaries between the public and the private spheres, between the social and the intimate (hooks, 1989; Chow, 2003). While I often discuss the implications of my identities in my publications and presentations, my Backstories expose more of the behind the scenes private or intimate experiences while doing the research or presentations. By sharing what I was experiencing in my own life, the Backstories help situate the connected work in the broader social context of the time.
Why create a Feminist Participatory Action Research (FPAR) website?
The short answer is twofold. First, I hope my site supports ongoing efforts to democratize the distribution of knowledge. This aligns with one of the missions of the Social Publishers Foundation. Within the confines of copyright protocols, I’m simply giving away everything I can that might be of any use to participatory action researchers, feminists or otherwise. Second, I want to shine a light once again on the critical importance of feminisms to a participatory research that wants to assert itself as emancipatory and transformative in purpose.
In the late 1970’s, while a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Jamaica, I began my understanding of participatory development. After, while a doctoral student at the Center for International Education, UMASS Amherst https://www.umass.edu/cie/, I delved into the interfaces among participation, feminisms, development, and research. Then I moved to northwest New Mexico to live and work. Gallup is a rural community or border town on the edge of the Navajo Nation and Pueblo of Zuni. It is one of the most culturally rich, linguistically diverse, yet economically poorest areas in the United States. I volunteered with a shelter for battered women which served Diné or Navajo women. Eventually I worked with a small group of Diné on a participatory research project.
In the Backstories section of my website, I reflect on that time:
By day I volunteered at the local battered women’s shelter. At night, I was deep into feminist theory and Habermas. I’ve written elsewhere about how that juxtaposition brought me to a feminist critique of the early male‐stream of participatory action research. The 1970’s feminist critiques of traditional social science were largely ignored by the male inner circle of participatory action researchers. Despite an acclaimed commitment to liberation and transformational intentions, PAR was in danger of becoming one more male monopoly. When you claim to use research to change the world but exclude or marginalize women, and our varied theories, well, what kind of world are you trying to create? We already had that world.
But who was I, “just‐a‐graduate‐student”, to see this or say anything? I admired and respected the social justice work of these men. But you see what you see.
The participatory research project and subsequent theoretical analyses became Doing participatory research: A feminist approach (Maguire, 1987). What did I see? I saw that without inclusion of feminist theories and attention to PAR’s early male biases, PAR was in danger of becoming one more male monopoly, unable to fulfill its transformative intentions. To address that potential danger, I outlined a framework for feminist participatory research.
Yet the sidelining of feminisms in PAR largely continued. In another Backstory, I wrote about the Cartagena World Congress of Participatory Action Research and Action Research (1997). Female Congress participants erupted in outrage over the gendered power dynamics of the Congress. The theme of the Congress was Convergence, in reference to the convergence between the PAR and AR worlds. In a speech at the Congress, I noted the theme should have been Congruence – due to lack of congruency between the espoused transformative values of participatory research and the Congress power structure. Most of the Congress Convenors who had public roles introducing sessions and moderating panels were men. Yoland Wadsworth noted that 40 of the 49 convenors, rapporteurs, chairs, and plenary session panelists were men. It was visually clear early on that the men of participatory research were running the show. I reflected on the feedback session during which women spoke out:
The proverbial shit hit the fan. Norma Romm, Susan Weill, Yoland Wadsworth, and many other women spoke up in outrage from the congress floor. Yoland said that the rapid succession of women jumping to their feet and speaking out felt like a relay race, one woman handing off the baton to another. The Congress women would not be quieted. Yoland asked, “Why had our men, of all people, for whom it is their work to assist others to give up colluding with power – so easily themselves colluded?”
… We participatory action researchers were on notice however. If this could happen to us, by us, on the inside, what could we expect out there? It wasn’t enough for us to consider how feminisms could inform PAR, we had to confront how male privilege was being reproduced or unsettled in participatory action research.
Shortly after the Congress, Peter Reason and Hilary Bradbury invited me to write a chapter about feminism and AR for the Handbook of Action Research (2001). Somewhat fresh off the Cartagena experience, I tried something different. In addition to reviewing the AR/PAR literature, I asked many action researchers directly how their work had been informed, if at all, by feminisms. I also asked them how they thought AR as a field had been informed, if at all, by feminisms. I set up a threaded discussion site for dialogue and had many email exchanges. While I have not yet written a Backstory about this time, I think my analysis and conclusions were a disappointment to the editors. I urged us to consider how and whether maleness, or male privilege, was being questioned and unsettled in and through Action Research. In a nod to politeness, I titled the essay, Uneven ground: Feminisms and action research (Maguire, 2001). I called upon the men and women of AR to work more intentionally to see and unsettle the gendering mechanisms still in play in action research. I urged feminist and action researchers to become allies in our efforts to harness research as one tool in the struggle to dismantle the many interlocking systems of oppression and domination, both inside AR and outside in our projects. In the next edition (2008), Colleen Reid and Wendy Frisby continued the call, expanding the framework for Feminist Participatory Action Research (2008).
Over the years after I left the Center for International Education for Gallup, New Mexico, I was part of a worldwide, very loose network of feminist participatory action researchers. Network implies more structure than existed. Those I was closest to have aged up now, and like myself, some are now on the periphery of FPAR. I know there are new, ever widening, ever overlapping informal networks of feminist participatory and action researchers. We had no formal FPAR organizations or mailing lists. We generously passed along email addresses, phone numbers, conference and coffee invitations, opportunities for publishing and board memberships, and purposefully cited each other’s work, again and again and again. We developed friendships and then shared those friendships. Our nurturing, interwoven, caring relationships helped us each examine how our diverse feminisms and multiple identities informed our work, our disciplines, our organizations, indeed our daily lives. We shared a perhaps unspoken commitment to keep our varied feminisms visible in the worlds of participatory and action research. But let me be clear. It wasn’t for us alone. It was to give us the strength to keep nudging action researchers, ourselves included, to use PAR/AR to continue to unsettle interlocking systems of power and oppression. We fought to keep action research from becoming a mere technical tool, delinked from its radical roots.
Without marching through the years, let me say that sometimes we found ourselves in a kind of no-person’s gap between feminist research and participatory action research. To try to narrow that gap, Mary Brydon-Miller, Alice McIntyre and I organized a very small working conference, Bridging the Gap, to bring together feminist scholars and participatory researchers (Brydon-Miller, Maguire, & McIntyre, 2004). Another gap, that between feminist action researchers and many male AR practitioners, continued to be a challenge. Few male action researchers were well-schooled in feminism (Greenwood, 2000). Indeed, male action researchers were rarely expected to understand how their gendered identities informed their research and lives.
In Doing participatory research: A feminist approach (1987), I first made the case that without inclusion of feminist theories and attention to PAR’s early male biases, PAR was in danger of becoming one more male monopoly. Along with others, I kept making that case, until I stepped away from academia. With the launch of my website, I’ve been asked, “all these years later, what, if anything, has changed within participatory and action research? “ I’m not prepared to thoughtfully answer that question yet in regard to the entire field of participatory and action research and to all our practitioners. However, I am prepared to begin questioning anew. Let me start by asking you, the reader. As you engage in participatory or action research, how are you intentionally considering and addressing the intersections of gender, race, class, and other identities and power relations in your project? As action researchers, we cannot transform the world without transforming ourselves in the process, however hard the work.
Why include Backstories on my FPAR website?
We humans are pattern-seeking, pattern-making beings. Through brain research, we know the power of stories to help us make sense, to make meaning of the universe. Stories help us connect the dots, to see and understand patterns. Through stories, we make connections – personal and neurological. Our personal backstories are particularly important in the world of knowledge creation. As a counter narrative to the supposed objectivity of knowledge creators, backstories help us understand and get a fix on researchers’ values, beliefs, and life experiences. All of these influence and inform our work. As I noted above, Backstories align with the feminist claim that the personal is political. As an introduction to the Backstories section, I wrote:
As a researcher and teacher, I’ve tried to make my human face apparent by sharing my struggles, annoyances, joys, values, and vulnerabilities. I take the position that researchers and teachers always bring our life histories, Identities, and positionalities to our work. We take our baggage on every journey. Rather than hide it or pretend it doesn’t exist, our responsibility is to reflect on and make sense of how our unique experiences and beliefs shape and inform our work and interactions.
This section includes some of my backstories. Some stories are linked to a Particular publication, presentation, or teaching resource for context. Kirsten Harrits and Ditte Scharnberg (1988, 1989) might call these small histories that help us learn about large history. Reading what someone else has gone through — their backstories — might help you try something new or see things with new eyes. While doing my doctoral research, I realized that I would be paralyzed if I continually compared my modest beginnings and exhausting middles to the near perfect documented endings of other’s work. I hope you will be encouraged by my small histories as you continue to write your own. Everybody has a story to tell.
Why else create my Feminist Participatory Action Research Website?
Feminist historiographers insist “… which story one tells about the past is always motivated by the position one occupies or wishes to occupy in the present.” (Clare Hemmings, 2011). What position do I want to occupy in the present? I have been secretly embarrassed that when I retired in 2011 from the university, I simply walked away. I walked away from teaching, researching, writing, publishing, and conferencing. After twenty-five years at the university, I left behind half-finished book manuscripts and projects. I was exhausted from the administrivia of my position. I was tired of the screen time required by relentless accreditation efforts. At times I thought we spent more time counting what we were doing then doing what we were counting. In many instances, we – faculty and students – knew what graduate program improvements were needed, with or without endless quantifying, assessing, and measuring to produce evidence for data-driven accountability. What did the data matter if the university would not share resources needed for improvements? So I was relieved to retire, to regroup.
Shortly after retiring, my husband Cal and I relocated to our childhood roots on the Atlantic Ocean in northern Florida. Friends and colleagues asked how I felt moving across the country, leaving behind years of work. I joked that it was like being in witness protection. Nobody knew who you were nor cared about your past. But I’ve harbored some fear that my daughters would think I had given up. I created my website in part for my daughters. I want them to know I didn’t give up, I just took a long pause and a pivot toward repurposing and questioning anew.
[i] While I created the website content materials, Peter Raulerson, a tech guru friend I’ve known since elementary school, created the actual site, the code, and its inner workings.
Brydon-Miller, M., Maguire, P., & McIntyre, A. (2004). Traveling companions: feminism, teaching, and action research. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger.
Chow, Ritz. (2003). The personal is political is ethical: Experiential reevaluation and embodied witnessing in illness narratives. Thesis. Simon Fraser University.
Greenwood, Davydd (2000 edition). Foreword. In P. Maguire. Doing participatory research: A feminist approach. Amherst, Massachusetts, Center for International Education, University of Massachusetts.
Hanisch, Carol (1970). The personal is political. In S. Firestone & A. Koedt (Eds.), Notes from the second year: Women’s liberation. (pp. 77–86). New York, NY: Radical Feminism. Retrieved from http://carolhanisch.org/CHwritings/PIP.html
Harrits, Kirsten, & Scharnberg, Ditte (1988, 1989). On life histories. In G. Härnsten, E, Siljehag, B. Wingård (March 2000), Education and educational research for adjustment or empowerment? Paper to ESREA Biography Network, Gender, learning, and biography. Roskilde, Sweden.
Hemmings, Clare (2011). Why stories matter: The political grammar of feminist theory. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.
Hooks, bell (1989). Talking back: thinking feminist, thinking black. Boston: South End Press.
Maguire, Patricia (1987). Doing participatory research: A feminist approach. Amherst, Massachusetts: Center for International Education, University of Massachusetts. Free download on at https://www.umass.edu/cie/news/patricia-maguire-sharing-history-my-professional-journey
Maguire, Patricia (2001). Uneven ground: feminisms and action research. In P. Reason & H. Bradbury (Eds.), Handbook of action research. (pp. 590-599). London: SAGE.
Reid, Colleen & Frisby, Wendy (2008). Continuing the journey: Articulating dimensions of feminist participatory research. In P. Reason & H. Bradbury (Eds.), Handbook of action research. (pp. 93-105). London: SAGE.
To cite this work, please use the following reference:
Maguire, P. (2021, February 24). Room 7 and a feminist participatory action research website. Social Publishers Foundation. https://www.socialpublishersfoundation.org/knowledge_base/room-7-and-a-feminist-participatory-action-research-website/