Whose Knowledge Counts? The Emerging Knowledge Democracy Movement

Budd L. Hall, Co-Chair, UNESCO Chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education1

Background

In the city where I live, Victoria, Canada, a wealthy city in a wealthy country, there are 1500 women and men (in a population of 250,000) who do not have a place to sleep at night. In India, one of the fastest growing economies in the world, 600 million people live without literacy, adequate water and sanitation, poor health facilities and insecure food security.

Indigenous people in North and South America, Africa and Asia have dramatically lower life expectancy and higher levels of health difficulties than the non-indigenous members of their communities. Their languages are disappearing daily and with the languages, extraordinary parts of our human knowledge base and culture.

Concerns with the protection of the wealthy from risk, the protection of access to non-renewable resources and water occupy the minds of vast numbers of the world’s inhabitants and a dramatically disproportionate level of government budgets.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s exhaustive study of inequality illustrates what many of us see in our work in communities daily. What is so powerful in their research is evidence that both the rich and the poor fare better in societies with less inequality. (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009)

It is the unequal world however that we live in. It is a world where greed continues to be celebrated and economic growth stubbornly put forward time and time again. This is the world that we work in as researchers, as teachers, as activists, as scholars.

A Knowledge Democracy Movement?

John Gaventa, of St. Francis Xavier University in Canada, was the first person in my experience to speak of social movements using a ‘knowledge strategy’ as their core political organising strategy. (Gaventa and Cornwall, 2008) His early work at Highlander Research and Education Centre supported citizen researchers to go to local courthouses to find out the ownership of local coalmines. For while profits were good, taxes were very low for these absentee landlords so that resources were not sufficient to cover the costs of good schools, health services or other social services to allow the mine workers and their families to flourish. These citizen researchers, using what John called a “knowledge strategy”, produced an important study on mine ownership, which had an impact on changing tax structures. (Cable and Benson, 1993)

Gaventa’s linking of knowledge with the organizing of a people’s movement was similar to what the late Mwalimu Julius K. Nyerere of Tanzania used to say and what we learned from Paulo Freire as well. Nyerere said, “Poor people do not use money for a weapon”, they use “ideas and leadership”. Freire articulated a faith in the embedded knowledge of people who are living lives of poverty, exclusion, oppression and disadvantage. His central theme was that the ability to understand and articulate the experience of lives of struggle was not only possible, but was a necessary condition for organizing and transformation. His poetic illuminations of the role of dialogue and learning gave us tools and approaches to support a knowledge movement.

How can we understand a concept like a “knowledge democracy movement”? First, I am working on an assumption that social movements remain at the heart of local and global change; that they are critically important sources of power to shift the way that people imagine various relations of power. I am not referring to engaged scholarship or higher education and community engagement itself as a movement, although there are movement elements to the ways in which community–university partnerships are expanding. I am also not thinking of the access to knowledge movement on its own either. (Ostrom and Hess, 2006)

A knowledge movement is centred within the lives and places of those who are seeking recognition of their rights, their land claims, access to jobs, ecological justice, recovery or retention of their languages. Knowledge itself within such a movement formation is most likely place-based and rooted in the daily lives of people who increase their knowledge of their own contexts, and by sharing what they are learning with allies and others like themselves move, as Paulo Freire says, towards being agents in the naming of the world. Community–university knowledge partnerships, in this conceptualisation, would be contributors to the broader knowledge movement. The access to information developments would also be a contributor, but neither the access to information developments nor the community–university engagement advancements form a global knowledge movement by themselves; they would be part of the necessary conditions for knowledge movements to gain footholds and flourish.

A central question to this is: How does our work in the co-creation of knowledge contribute to building a knowledge democracy movement?

Dr. Rajesh Tandon of PRIA and Dr. Budd Hall from the University of Victoria have been appointed Co-Chairs of a new UNESCO Chair in Community-Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education.  The central theme of their work is the development of and support for knowledge democracy.

References

Cable, S and M Benson (1993) “Acting Locally: Environmental Injustice and the Emergence of Grass-Roots Environmental Organizations”, Social Problems, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Nov., 1993), pp. 464-477.

Gaventa, J and A Cornwall (2008) “Power and Knowledge”, in P Reason et al. The Sage Handbook on Action Research, London: Sage, pp 172-185.

Hall, B (2009) “Higher Education, Community Engagement and the Public Good: Building the Future of Continuing Education in Canada”, Canadian Journal of University Continuing Education, Spring, 2009.

Ostrom, E and C Hess (2007) Understanding Knowledge as a Commons, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wilkinson, R and K Pickett (2009) The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, London: Allan Lane.

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