Among the most complicated set of questions you will need to answer as you gather knowledge related to your community mobilization has to do with how you will balance transparency to different people, the privacy of people you learn from, and acknowledging them as the source of your learning.
Being Ethical About Collecting Knowledge
Building a strong and ethical relationship to the people and places with whom you are learning about the world is very important. One of the first ways you can work on ensuring that you are building that relationship is by thinking about transparency, acknowledgement, and privacy. Transparency means being open about the reason why you are collecting knowledge, about who you are going to share it with, and about what you will share. Everyone who participates in helping you learn more needs to understand these things. You also need to be transparent with people with whom you report the outcomes of your learning, about how you collected it. You should only hide something important about how you learned things, or who you learned them from, if it is important in order to protect people from harm.
Often times, maintaining people’s privacy is a way to protect them from harm. People have the right to have their private thoughts and opinions protected. If they share them with you, because they trust you or want to help you gather knowledge, you owe them the option of you concealing their identity or protecting them from being known. For instance, if you are talking to people about why it is difficult to live and work in your community without residency papers, you do not want to put their names and pictures on Facebook talking about this without their permission. It might lead to trouble for them. Even if the information is not that sensitive, people have the right to not be identified with the information they gave you, or not to have attention called to their participation.
To the people from whom you are learning, therefore, you owe it to be transparent about what you are doing and what you are going to do with their stories. You then must talk with them about their own privacy and preferences. If they might be harmed by you sharing any information they give you, whether it is their name, or the place where they are from, or something that happened to them, it is your job as the person gathering the knowledge the help keep that information private.
However, the other side of the coin is that people have a right to be acknowledged as having knowledge and being the source of wisdom. Often, many researchers learn things from members of communities, and then repeat what they’ve learned as if it belongs only to them. This is not fair to the people who taught them—they become invisible in the process! Think of it like cooking—you would always tell someone that you are cooking your grandmother’s special recipe if they ask how you made something unique. If members of a community who have shared knowledge with you would like to be acknowledged, and there is no risk to them in being acknowledged, then they have the right to ask for that. (If there is a risk, you must be honest with them about the risk. They may decide that being acknowledged is worth the risk.)
Universities have a formal process through which researchers (people who are collecting knowledge) gather the permission of the people from whom they are learning, and ensure that they are being transparent, ensuring participants privacy, and providing opportunities for acknowledgement. The formal process of research ethics certification that this is a part of is a result of many major unethical activities that researchers have carried out, particularly in the fields of medical and psychological research.
Here is the form that the CMIC team used with the interviewees who made the videos you have been watching. We used the form in English or in Arabic with people, based on what language they spoke or read. You can see how we explained the project to them, in order to be transparent. Once we asked them if they would like to be interviewed, they had the choice of whether they would like to be recorded and how to use their name. Some of them chose to use just their first name rather than their full name. Others chose to be audio recorded rather than be filmed. And other people we have spoken to and learned from have asked that we not record them and not use their names. We have thanked them personally, and shared the wisdom they taught us, but we respect that choice and keep their names private.
Most community mobilizers do not use a formal document like this, because it would make people uncomfortable. Instead, they cover the same basic points in conversation, including explaining why they are asking questions, explaning the benefits and risks involved, ensuring that people are comfortable with participating, and asking about privacy and acknowledgement issues. When the CMIC team held an event on our university campus, which we wanted to livestream and/or record for learning purposes, we used a shorter form, which was a consent to being video recorded. Documents like this are usually called “media release forms.” If you want to be able to photograph people and use those photographs in your work, a media release form is a good idea, but in a more casual setting you can simply ask permission. Remember that everyone gets to say yes or no for themseves, not for other people, though often when working with children you should check with their parents as well.
For your own learning and knowledge gathering, it is often best to talk to people about what they prefer. Be open and transparent with them, and give them choices about privacy and acknowledgement. There is no perfect system to ensure that you are making good, ethical choices about how to work with people to learn from them; instead, make sure you are listening, thinking, and prioritizing your good relations with the people you are working with. If you make a mistake or offend someone, apologize and try to make it right.