The 2017 Cartagena Assembly: An Introduction of SPF Series

By Lonnie Rowell

    The 2017 Cartagena Assembly: An Introduction of SPF Series

    About the Author

    Lonnie Rowell
    (Ret.) Professor
    Rio Rancho, NM, US
    3 Articles Published
    Lonnie Rowell

    Dr. Lonnie Rowell has been an educator for 50+ years. He is a retired professor at University of San Diego, where he directed the Counseling Program. The collaborative action research model he created for school counseling has been widely cited in school counseling literature. He has supervised and consulted on more than 120 action research projects. Working with students he established the San Diego Action Research Conference, a leading event for action researchers in North America from 2004-2012. Dr. Rowell was Program Chair (2012-2014) for the Action Research Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and co-founded the Action Research Network of the Americas (ARNA). He Co-Chaired ARNA’s 2017 1st Global Assembly for Knowledge Democracy in Cartagena, Colombia. He is an Editor for Educational Action Research and co-edited a two-part Special Issue on Knowledge Democracy. He is lead editor of the Palgrave International Handbook of Action Research (2017).

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    Reflections on the 2017 Cartagena Assembly for Knowledge Democracy: Part 1

    In June of 2017 some 350 people gathered at the Convention Center in Cartagena, Colombia, for a social experiment on Knowledge Democracy. The daylong event – The 1st Global Assembly for Knowledge Democracy (GAKD) – was organized by the Action Research Network of the Americas (ARNA) in partnership with the global Pedagogy, Education, and Praxis (PEP) Network based in Australia, Europe, and South America. The Assembly was a featured event of ARNA’s 5th annual conference. The 2017 ARNA Conference was organized in partnership with the National University of Colombia / Universidad Nacional de Colombia. The conference included sponsorships by 47 educational and research institutions, non-governmental civil society organizations and businesses globally, with 20 of the sponsors based in Latin America. More than 750 action-research and participatory-action-research (PAR) practitioners, scholars, scholar-activists, community-activists, and students attended the three day conference. The GAKD convened June 17, 2017, the day after the conference ended.

    As we near the five-year anniversary of the Assembly and as we face a fierce global attack on democracy (see my blog, Social Publishers Foundation is launching a new Series – Reflections on the 2017 Cartagena Assembly – that will examine the June 2017 event through “reflections” by individuals who envisioned, designed, supported, and facilitated the event, and by Assembly participants from around the world. The authors will address how the Assembly was created, the hopes and aspirations of the designers, the experience of the day, how it has impacted the lives of some of the organizers and attendees as well as the successes and shortcomings related to what took place. This essay provides background and context for the gathering.

    The Series also comes on the heels of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia and a subsequent massive refugee and humanitarian crisis in Europe. On February 23, historian Heather Cox Richardson (2022) wrote in her e-newsletter regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “It not only has broken a long period of peace in Europe, it has brought into the open that authoritarians are indeed trying to destroy democracy.” I believe this is the crux of the matter for those of us who value action research and all forms of participatory and practitioner research. To the extent that we understand that the spirit of democracy lies at the heart of our approaches to knowledge production and dissemination, we understand that the terrible plight of Ukraine is our plight as well. It seems clear that efforts to destroy democracy, if allowed to proceed unchecked, will without a doubt come knocking at the doors of those who encourage, nurture, and engage in participatory research around the world. SPF is publishing the Series Reflections on the 2017 Cartagena Assembly in the face of this threat and in solidarity with all those resisting the efforts to impose authoritarianism around the world.


    The 2017 Assembly was organized as a social experiment in creating open spaces for dialogue on knowledge democracy and participatory research. The organizing was taken on by an international planning group with members from Australia, Colombia, South Africa, the UK, and the USA. I was the Co-Chair of the Assembly with Christine Edwards-Groves of the PEP Network, Chair of the Planning Group, and creator of the initial concept for the gathering. The Planning Group worked together in virtual spaces for 18 months prior to the actual event.

    The group came together primarily through collegial relations between two action research networks, namely the Action Research Network of the Americas (ARNA) and the Collaborative Action Research Network (CARN), with CARN being the big sister network with 40 years of history and a well-established global outlook and ARNA being the younger network (established in 2012) intent on building a hemispheric presence focused on the potential for convergences across the many borders and boundaries dividing the Americas. Over time, the planning group continued to reach out to and add representations from other action research networks, including the Australia-based group –  the Action Learning, Action Research Association, Ltd (ALARA) – that had been a co-organizer, along with the Colombian PAR originator Orlando Fals Borda, of the World Congress of Participatory Convergence in Knowledge, Space and Time, held at the Cartagena Convention Center and the Convent of St. Francis at Cartagena de Indias from May 31 to June 5, 1997 (Fals Borda, 1998).

    As the 2017 Assembly drew near, the planning group established a smaller team – the June 16 Design Team – to finalize planning and preparations and to implement the plan on the ground in Cartagena. To maintain continuity in global outreach for the upcoming event, four contacts were set for ongoing input on the Assembly process: myself in the U.S., Jose Ramos and Christine Edwards-Groves in Australia, and Wray Irwin in the UK. As a part of the preparation, a series of pre-conference and pre-Assembly participatory workshops were held around the world for the purpose of generating dialogues that would subsequently be shared and built upon in Cartagena. These workshops were initially conceptualized based on Fals Borda’s use of “preparatory workshops” in conjunction with the 1997 World Congress (Fals Borda, 1998). In the 1997 instance, 7 workshops were held in Colombia, with regional papers presented which later enriched the World Congress. In addition, for the 1997 gathering 17 workshops were held at locations around the world, including 5 in Latin-American countries other than Colombia. In preparation for the 2017 Assembly, at least a dozen participatory workshops were held at various locations around the world, including one in Colombia (Wood, McAteer, & Whitehead, 2019).


    The Assembly Planning Group and the Design Team walked, what at times felt like a quite challenging and sometimes blurry line, between action research, participatory action research (PAR), and all forms of participatory research on the one hand, and on the other hand a much broader populist, activist, organizing, theoretical and intellectual space in which knowledge democratization was being addressed, developed, and practiced in various parts of the world. The effort to walk this line and to respect the traditions and trajectories on both sides of it constitute the context for the 1st Global Assembly.

    The GAKD was conceptualized as a dialogic event rather than an academic gathering. The event planning evolved in relation to the notion of a ‘fuzzy boundary’ between participatory research communities and other communities developing in larger social justice and knowledge democratization spaces. This notion was advanced by Assembly organizers in recognition that while none of those engaged in “activist-conceptualization circles seeking alternatives to the standard narratives and practices of globalization, neo-liberal ideological dominance, and toxic capitalist commodification and expropriation of all forms of knowledge . . . wanted to give up their unique identities, missions, and visions, efforts were needed to initiate dialogue and sharing across and between these groups” (Rowell & Feldman, 2019, p. 2). The idea of the Assembly was to engage in dialogue around the edges of the fuzzy boundary to see what might emerge that could advance knowledge democracy and contribute to organizing for social justice.

    Participatory Research and Knowledge Democracy

    At the core of participatory research in all its forms lies a democratizing spirit of growth and change “for the good of each person and the good of humankind” (Kemmis, 2010). In practice, for example, action research is grounded in a conviction that the approach empowers and transforms both the lead action researchers as well as all participants in a specific project (Rowell, Polush, Riel, & Bruewer, 2015). Yet, one of the pressing challenges for action research, PAR, and other forms of participatory research is the dominant form in which the knowledge produced by this work is shared with the larger world. Most often what is shared is presented in the propositional form of science acceptable to dominant forms of scholarly publication (Rowell & Feldman, 2019). This form of dissemination offends the spirit of epistemological diversity (de Sousa Santos, 2014) and far too often masks biases and prejudices as well-established truths (Deloria, 1997).

    Those involved in the Assembly planning had varied, yet deep experience with issues of knowledge production and knowledge dissemination. We understood the world of academic scholarship, journal and book publishing, formal conference papers, and so on. Yet, for the gathering we were organizing, we sought to create a one-day experience that would be ‘short on lecture and long on dialogue.’ In other words, we did not want to duplicate the forms and processes of academic conferences, forums and symposia. In addition, in keeping with Fals Borda’s 1997 orientation towards “convergences,” which had in large part inspired the 1997 Cartagena gathering, we conceived of the Assembly as a small scale experience of convergence between global north and global south epistemological orientations and between individuals situated in formal academic environments and those more grounded in the spaces of community-based participatory research and social activism aligned with social justice. This conceptualization also reflected continuity with Paulo Freire’s perspective on organizer-educators “promoting structural change inside a system while drawing support from social movement allies who are strategically outside the system” (Lange, 2009, p. 131). It also was suggestive of a role for action researchers as bridge-builders between research and social movements (e.g., Welton, 1993).

    At the time the Assembly was convened, nearly three decades had passed since participatory research pioneers such as Paulo Freire, Marja-Liisa Swantz, Orlando Fals Borda, and John Gaventa had begun to address more specifically the contours of global North and global South divisions, and it was nearly 50 years since groundbreaking works on the motivations, principles, and practices of participatory research had begun to appear. By the 1990s, according to Fals Borda, “the idea of participation associated with social, economic and political research, had spread through five continents,” with as many as 30+ schools of thought having emerged. “The need was felt to consider in what ways these schools differed or converged in theory as well as in practice, and to examine what they had been doing” (1998). This felt need was what drove the organizing of the 1997 Cartagena World Congress

    New Social Movements: Alternative Frameworks for Action, Knowledge, and Social Change

    Regarding the broader context of knowledge democratization, we were mindful that important progressive movements and initiatives had emerged with sometimes very tenuous and problematic relations with research of any kind. Although some activists and commentators recognized decades ago that non-institutional learning and consciousness-raising were core components of the progressive social movements of the 1960s – 1990s (e.g., Berman, 1996; Keniston, 1968; Loss, 2012; Rossman, 1972; ), the creation and dissemination of knowledge through these components was much more grounded in reflection, dialogue, and pamphleteering than it was linked to formal research. The Women’s Movement provided a particularly powerful example of this phenomenon in its adoption of consciousness-raising (CR) groups in the 1960s – 1970s (Loss, 2012). The transformative learning associated with participation in CR groups, and the application of this learning to the political action strategies and tactics of the movement has been well-documented (e.g., Dreyfus, 1973; Morgan, 1970).   

    In addition, while many activists arrived at the doorstep of the 21st century feeling “skeptical, anxious, afraid [and] shaken” given the trajectories of political battles and history in the global North during the preceding four decades (Berman, 1996, p. 339), new progressive practices were emerging, largely in the global South. The need for intercultural translation arose in large part because Eurocentric scholars, scholar-activists, and researchers found it nearly impossible to “recognize or understand the counterhegemonic grammars and practices emerging in the global South” (de Sousa Santos, 2014, p. 41). The following three descriptions are representative of relevant movements at the time.

           World Social Forum. An important thought and action focal point for transformative politics in the first quarter of the 21st century has been the World Social Forum (WSF). The WSF has its roots in Latin American activism and was first established in the Global South. Launched in 2001, WSF is an annual meeting of progressive civil society organizations as well as a global forum for activists opposing hegemonic notions of globalization, neoliberalism, and global capitalism. The inaugural gathering was held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and 14 of the 16 forums between 2001 and 2016 have been held in the Global South (for useful history and analyses of the WSF, see Ramos, 2010; Sen, Anand, Escobar, & Waterman, 2004). The 2022 World Social Forum was held in Mexico City from May 1-6, 2022.

    Seeking an alternative to the contradictions and limitations of the dominant vision of ‘globalization,’ WSF has pursued the assertion that “another world is possible” and initiated actions based on this assertion (see, for example, The interactive structure of the gatherings along with the broadly defined unifying purpose of fighting against neoliberal globalization and fighting for an alternative possible world have had a significant impact on the relationship between theory and transformative practices (de Sousa Santos, 2014).

           The Commons Movement. As another social-change orientation, the global Commons Movement has had much to say regarding the production and uses of knowledge along with many other aspects of economic and social life ( The movement is primarily grounded in the global North, and more specifically the USA, with its Board of Directors, Advisory Board, and staff, all based in the Northeast. Their vision is for a different world of value than that of the market price system, with a commitment to “production for use, not market exchange or profit” ( They hold to a deep respect for participatory rule-making and responsible land stewardship. While many commons’ initiatives are small, localized efforts, the movement’s widespread use of the internet and digital technologies has made these efforts open and connected, with the result that commons initiatives are aligned with other forces in remaking the global economy.

           The UNESCO Initiative. In our Global Assembly planning we also recognized and respected the efforts of Budd Hall and Rajesh Tandon, serving as Co-Holders, UNESCO Chair in Community-Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education. Hall and Tandon have been “working together on issues of knowledge democracy and the decolonization of knowledge since 1978, when [they] founded the International Participatory Research Network” (Hall & Tandon, 2017). Over the years they “have kept a focus on the role of knowledge and the co-creation of knowledge in the deepening of democracy in social movements, communities, civil society organizations and universities” (Hall & Tandon, 2017).  

    Assembly Planning and the Potentials for Convergences in Global South and Global North Initiatives for Social Change

    What our planning group was focused on was creating space for new contributions to the perspectives described above. As stated in a 2016 planning brief which I co-authored with Assembly Co-Chair Christine Edwards-Groves and Planning Group and Design Team member Jose Ramos, what we aspired to do was to “create a socio-political and culturally diverse space within which concerned people from various parts of the world can meet as a kind of alternative ‘think tank’ that helps point the way towards innovative solutions to global crisis issues by drawing from the wellsprings of knowledge democracy and our shared human capacity to listen to one another.” In what we saw as the spirit of Fals Borda, we sought to create an experience of ‘convergence’ that broadened understandings of the inter-relatedness of participatory research, social change, and knowledge democratization linked to both the global South and global North.

    In both the global South and the global North, striking divisions between priorities and engagements of higher education institutions, the daily lives and suffering of the disadvantaged and marginalized, and determined organizing and militancy in relation to proposals, actions, and movements for radical reform, call out for resolution. Linking this with critical issues of epistemology, de Sousa Santos (2014) asserted that a new epistemological issue had emerged as a part of filling a void created by the “hollowness” of Eurocentric critical theory and left politics – what he called the “ghostly relationship between theory and practice” – in relation to the “most innovative and effective transformative left practices” that had begun to emerge in the mid-20th century “in the former colonial world outside Europe or North America, in unfamiliar places, carried out by strange people who often speak very strange noncolonial languages or less hegemonic colonial languages such as Spanish and Portuguese.”

    ARNA was well aware that it could not convene its first Latin America gathering without taking the above issues into account.[i]  For the conference portion of the 2017 gathering it was, admittedly, assumed that direct partnership with a Latin American university, in particular with the university that had been Fals Borda’s academic homebase both before and after his ‘abandonment’ of the academy in the late 1960s in pursuit of alternative forms of supporting and allying with popular movements for social change (Rappaport, 2020), would ground the conference in dialogue regarding many of the issues of critical knowledges and practices in Latin America and the global South in general (de Sousa Santos, 2014). The Bogota-based Conference Planning Committee included members from four Colombian universities, with most members engaged in participatory research in various parts of the country. I served as the ARNA leadership group’s North American representative to the committee. Hopes were high that our preparations adequately balanced the reality of our founding in North America with our intention to create a hemispheric network of action research and participatory action research.

    In addition to grounding the conference planning in the Latin American country which would host the conference, a recognition of the importance of non-academic experiential learning tied to what de Sousa Santos calls “the ecology of knowledges” led me to propose to ARNA leadership, and receive their support for, a one-day special Assembly that would convene the day after the formal conference ended. A source of inspiration for my thinking at the time was de Sousa Santos’s (2014) discussion of intercultural translation spaces and initiatives. In his view, “at the core of ecologies of knowledges is the idea that different types of knowledge are incomplete in different ways and that raising the consciousness of such reciprocal incompleteness (rather than looking for completeness) will be a precondition for achieving cognitive justice” (p. 212). The work of intercultural translation involves unearthing assumptions among cultures, recognizing differences and similarities, and as appropriate creating “new hybrid forms of cultural understanding and intercommunication.” In essence, the search for creative solutions to the tough questions of our times needs a pathway that draws on the full ecology of knowledges, what Hall and Tandon refer to as rendering visible the excluded knowledges of our planet, and avoids the pitfalls of socio-cultural and socio-political marginalization and exclusion of knowledge systems grounded in the lived experiences of Indigenous peoples and excluded racial, gender, class, and other groups. Intercultural translation experiences can be a tool for creating such a pathway, and we wanted the Assembly to provide practice in using that tool.

    My experience as an educator convinced me that embracing epistemological diversity requires unlearning as well as learning and that enacting practice-based initiatives grounded in knowledge democratization requires creativity and openness to change (e.g., Rowell & Hong, 2017). I saw the Assembly as a space in which learning and unlearning would occur. That is, we could experience both our cultural, epistemological, and practical differences in the context of global north and south issues and the prospects for new understandings that could begin to bridge the differences as well as point the way towards shared solutions to common problems. I saw this happening within a framework of a kind of alternative global civic literacy related to theory and practice in action research and PAR and grounded in the dynamics of a democratically based politics of knowledge production and knowledge dissemination.

           Assembly Format for Encouraging Participants’ Dialogues. The effort to ‘hold open’ the space created for the Assembly led to the decision to have only one main speaker, and Boaventura de Sousa Santos was invited to be that speaker. For the event Opening we invited Budd Hall and Rajesh Tandon to bring their “greetings” to the assembled participants. With these three prominent figures setting the tone, the bulk of the time in the Assembly would be left open to working sessions in ‘table groups’ focused around three dialogue-prompt questions, with the results of those discussions to be shared with the full assembly near the end of the event. The three prompt questions put before the Assembly were (1) Who are we as individuals (e.g., what do I bring to the table?); (2) Who are we together? (i.e., what are the dynamics in the relationships between the diverse knowledges being brought to the table?); and (3) What do we want to do together? In addition to the ‘table work,’ the Assembly planners arranged for live links with groups not able to attend the event in person. Jose Ramos organized a live link with activists in the WSF and the Commons movement, and Jack Whitehead organized a live link with members of his Living Theory Network based in the UK but with members on several continents. I saw these links as both real time resources for participants and as a way to help disseminate the spirit and contents of what was taking place during the event.

    The SPF Series

    Now, nearly 5 years on from the Assembly, many of us involved in the event continue to sort out what took place and to seek to apply what we learned to advance the work of knowledge democratization (e.g., Stern, 2019). The essays in the Series celebrate the 2017 social experiment, acknowledge its shortcomings and incompleteness and perhaps can help guide us in moving forward with the still emerging convergences and initiatives suggested by it. SPF will publish the series in three parts, with approximately five essays in each part.

    In preparing the Essay Series I am thankful that Thomas Stern of Austria first shared his Notes on the Assembly on the Action Research Network of the Americas’ (ARNA) website shortly after the Assembly.[ii]  His sharing was the first written reflection that I am aware of on what took place on June 16, 2017. Thomas later wrote a more formal and scholarly examination of key issues in the relations between action research and knowledge democracy (i.e., Stern, 2019). I also appreciate the contributions of the six authors of two other academic publications addressing the experiences of the Assembly. The publications are found in the journal Educational Action Research (Seeley, McAteer, Osorio Sanchez, & Kenfield, 2019; Wood, McAteer, & Whitehead, 2019) as part of a Special Issue on Knowledge Democracy. Seeley et al. (2019) used an action research approach based on phenomenological and semi-structured interview methods to examine some Assembly participants’ experiences of the event and explore considerations for moving forward post-Assembly.[iii]  Wood et al. (2019) presented an analysis of some of the pre-ARNA Conference and Assembly participatory workshops held around the world for the purpose of generating dialogues that would be subsequently shared in Cartagena.

    The essays included in the SPF Series will present the post-Assembly reflections of a number of people involved that day, including people who live and work in areas of the global South and global North. Some authors have written extensively on issues of knowledge democratization; for others their essays will be their first written statements on the topic. SPF anticipates two concluding essays that will look ahead in examining potential roles for participatory research-affiliated knowledge democratization initiatives in relation to the current attacks on democracy and the larger project of creating a progressive political agenda that is inclusive and humanistic (e.g., Tschirgi, 2018). We do this mindful of the perilous moment in which democracy finds itself across the globe. In this moment, we are determined to contribute in diverse ways to further developing a new sense of global civic literacy grounded in respecting differences, supporting initiatives that uplift those who have been historically marginalized, and realizing the potential for new global solidarities around democratizing knowledge and hence strengthening democracies.


    [i] As a key element in its vision of a hemispheric network, ARNA had established in its first year of existence (2012-2013) the principle of alternating conference locations between the US, Canada, and Latin America.

    [ii] The Notes, along with some photos from the Assembly are found here:; They are posted as a pdf –  

    [iii] Allan Feldman and I co-edited a two-part Educational Action Research journal Special Issue on Knowledge Democracy in 2019. Allan’s essay on his experience of the Assembly is included in Part 1 of the Series. Two articles on the Assembly were published in Part I (Vol. 27 #1) of the EARJ Special Issue on Knowledge Democracy: the previously mentioned Seeley, McAteer, Osario Sanchez and Kenfield article and an article by Wood, McAteer and Whitehead that examines the series of pre-Assembly participatory workshops held around the world to examine the question “how can action researchers work in ways that are contextually and culturally relevant and generate knowledge that enables people to take control of improving their own lives as they see fit?”


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    To cite this work, please use the following reference:

    Rowell, L. (2022, May 20). The 2017 Cartagena Assembly: An Introduction of SPF Series. Social Publishers Foundation.

    Copyrighted by Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

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