Back in February 2020, which now seems like a lifetime ago, West Coast LEAF signed on as an organizational endorser of Research 101: A Manifesto for Ethical Research in the Downtown Eastside.
The Manifesto was developed by peer workers in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) through a six-part workshop series, in collaboration with SFU researchers. It “provide[s] guidelines for researchers which clearly outline the expectations that DTES community members have for research that is respectful, useful, and ethical in the DTES community,” This project is part of an ongoing conversation within the DTES neighbourhood about community ethics, in response to a long history of people extracting knowledge and stories from the community in ways that have caused harm.
Endorsing the Manifesto is one part of West Coast LEAF’s ongoing process to reflect, learn, and grow in our research-based processes. Research informs all of our reports, education projects, submissions, and legal strategies. Embedding our research process in community knowledge and experiences means developing and evaluating processes and protocols that strive to not harm the community we intend to be working alongside.
We are still in early stages of embedding the Manifesto into our protocols, but we wanted to share our six reasons why we feel the Research Manifesto is a good fit for our organization (and maybe yours too!).
Wrapping up a day of collective research on Snuneymuxw territory Photo credit: Sharnelle Jenkins-Thompson
1. It is part of addressing the complicated history of research done on communities and people.
Research is not a neutral process, it is influenced by our values and worldviews. Understanding the history of research and what it has been used to justify is important when working alongside communities that have strong reason to be hesitant or refuse to participate in research processes.
Horrible acts of violence have been committed in the name research. One such example, highlighted in the findings from the Truth and Reconciliation of Canada, are the experiments performed on Indigenous children in residential schools. This abuse of power in the name of research is not something in the distant past.
Research is also done to rather than with communities in more subtle ways, for example through funding cycles that don’t allow for the full participation of communities before asking for their consent to the research project, or through structures that prioritize knowledge being taken out of the community and not brought back to be either validated or understood by that community.
Research that reinforces stereotypes has real-world repercussions for the people associated with the stigma.
The DTES Research Manifesto reminds us of this history and provides some pathways to consider how we can address this in our work.
2. It asks researchers to be aware and not be part of reinforcing stigma.
For too long the story of the DTES has been one-sided and sensationalized. Important publications like Megaphone Magazine and the podcast Crackdown complicate these depictions, centring the voices of residents and creating a space for nuance, complexity, and the strength of the neighbourhood to take centre stage.
Research that reinforces stereotypes has real-world repercussions for the people associated with the stigma. As Pivot Legal Society found in their report, stigma influences our laws and policies. But, as the Manifesto advocates, good research challenges stigma and benefits the community.
3. It unsettles the role of expert.
The title and role of “researcher” are loaded. Too often, outsiders come into communities and “scoop” up knowledge, building their careers this way, sometimes without ever giving back to the community or acknowledging whose knowledge supported their movement towards becoming an “expert.”
The Manifesto drives home the importance and role of peer researchers. This means that everyone on the research team is a “peer” with one another and everyone brings forward vital contributions. They include a list of expectations when it comes to working alongside peer researchers, my personal favourites on that list being “stop with the elitism,” and “don’t read us the book we wrote.”
A day of dotmocracy. Photo Credit: Sharnelle Jenkins-Thompson
4. It opens up new ways to think about relationships in research-based work
Connected to the idea of the “expert”, we can have pre-conceived notions around how everyone is supposed to relate to one another in their research work. Often these conceptions reinforce hierarchy and centre a Western worldview in how people work together.
The Manifesto opens with a section titled, “Getting to Know Each Other.” The questions include typical questions when learning about a project, like the experiences of the team in the proposed area of study, funding, time etc., but also includes important questions around who you are as a person, beyond just your role. These types of reflective questions serve to make the experience feel “more human”, and allow us to find our points of connections and our differences. I have also found Indigenous Wholistic Theory to be a helpful way of reflecting on relationships in research.
5. It complicates (in a good way!) how we think about the role of ethics approvals
The research ethics approval process is a key part of any research project within large institutions, and it was developed to attempt to prevent future abuses of power in the name of research. For anyone who has gone through the research ethics board of their university or college I have a great deal of empathy! It is no simple task.
However, the values on which the ethics approval processes are built do not always align with the values or ethics of communities like the DTES, as the Manifesto points out by asking, “whose ethics?”. At West Coast LEAF, we start by referring to the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans – TCPS 2 (2018), but it’s just that, a starting place. The Manifesto outlines potential areas that may not be covered by an institutional ethics process that should be explored collaboratively and with enough time for questions to be asked.
The Manifesto stresses the importance of being clear in your accountability to the community through every stage of the research process.
6. It centres reciprocity and accountability in tangible ways
Connected to the ethics process, reciprocity and accountability are highlighted throughout the Manifesto. One aspect I appreciate is that reciprocity and accountability are defined as potential actions one can take, from volunteering your time in the community to engaging in member-checking. This translates into concrete actions creates shared expectations and understanding.
Accountability in research can feel complicated and often feels like a delicate tightrope walk. The Manifesto stresses the importance of being clear in your accountability to the community through every stage of the research process. A model of accountability we are excited about at West Coast LEAF originates with the Winnipeg Boldness Project and their accountability framework. All the people and groups involved can locate themselves through this framework and see how and where decisions are made in the project.
Preparing for a day of story-telling circles. Photo Credit: Sharnelle Jenkins-Thompson
We are grateful and inspired by the work that went into developing Research 101: A Manifesto for Ethical Research in the Downtown Eastside. We are proud to be signatories and continuing to learn and grow from this work.
Questions? Feedback? blog [at]westcoastleaf[.]org
Sharnelle Jenkins-Thompson (she/her) is the Manager of Community Outreach and recent master’s student graduate who opted out of a thesis option partially inspired by reading REB applications.