I want to give an example of what happens when I go into a community to do research, and a specific example. This past year, we had set up all of these focus groups which we were planning to do in a specific community where they would narrow down from the very big list of priorities they had provided in the first few years that we were working with them, to decide on a list of five or six key issues that they wanted to start working on first.
This particular community, is a really remote community. It’s a fly in and you can’t access it by roads except for a very short period in the winter. And unfortunately, with climate change, that period where it can be accessible by roads is changing dramatically. So this year, the road started thawing out… so usually the road freezes because it [is located on a land] that freezes and then you can get across to the community. However, this year, the road started thawing about six to eight weeks earlier early.
A family was driving down to get to one of the cities far away from the community and a truck for a development company zoomed by on their way up to destroy whatever resources they were trying to extract and the family went off the road and the mother died. This event happened a couple of days before our team arrived in the community. When we arrived in the community, [which] is a small community of about three hundred people, there was actually two people who had died so it affected pretty much everyone.
We had the trip planned for months, I had my students with me and the other professors had students with them and it was meant to be a learning process for them and even giving the situation, it was still a very big learning process for them because they saw us put aside our needs, put aside the research that we had grants for, that we had timelines and deadlines to meet and instead, we helped the community.So, the first thing we did is we went to the leadership and asked “what can we do?”. They said to go and speak to the man, who is directing everybody to do the different things. So we went, and we sat in a circle, and we all described our skill sets, the things that we can do. Because death happens so frequently in these communities, there’s often suicides that follow up because of the hardships and because people just can’t deal with it. Often they feel like there’s no hope and there’s no way to get out of the situation, which is understandable as they’re losing loved ones all the time. Therefore, some of us were asked if we could go on suicide watches, some of us were asked if we could cook food for the community members, some of us were asked to babysit, some of us were asked to do a whole diversity of things to help the community because that’s what the community needed and we were there. So, we did what we were asked. Even though we had thirty focus groups we were supposed to do over the course of four and a half days, it didn’t matter. All the plans got put aside because we had a relationship with this community, because we were partners with this community, because we weren’t there; our project wasn’t based on getting certain outcomes or deliverables to make somebody outside of the community happy. Our focus, and we tell our funders this, we tell our university administrators, we tell all those people on the outside that our focus is the community. Our community that we’re working with needs the help that they designate us to give them and that is the priority and that is always the priority. It is always about the people on the ground and it’s not about research papers, or books, or deadlines, it’s none of that. We put all the research aside and we cooked, we sat with the kids, we sang songs, we attended the burial and some people even helped to dig the grave because they kept collapsing in. We did grave digging, we did all of these things and it did not matter that the research had to be put aside.
Afterwards, after the funeral, the community mobilized and pointed out to what they needed. They considered us as true partners, and then we had people come in floods to try and fill up and try to give us the input that we needed to help them achieve goals that they fixed so that these sorts of things wouldn’t happen again. Even though we took a different approach and we didn’t get the data in the “rigorous” academic way, we got so much beautiful input that we never would have gotten if we just popped into the community and didn’t have these relationships. The people were so honest, so upfront, so engaged and happy to share because they knew that we were going to do the right thing for them and help them do the right things for themselves. And that’s how I do research.