Putting together a project involving five European countries working closely with local communities with a history of systematic exclusion, displacement and deprivation is a hard and complex task. It becomes harder when the people involved emphasize the importance of developing bottom-up research, of working not for the communities but with the communities, and of operating in the interstices between micro interactions and macro structures. Though these are the features that make the European Urban Boundaries (EUB) project hard, these are also the ones which make it an exciting challenge for all the people involved. Last week, at ESRI, a group of fourteen people came together to present and discuss their work, their ideas and their doubts about the project. The purpose of the seminar was to be a place of discussion and preparation of the application that will be submitted next June within the European programme Horizon2020. The seminar gathered people from Germany, UK and Portugal, three of the countries that compound the project (Spain and Greece being the other two).
Mônica Mesquita (University of Lisbon), the principal investigator of the project, started by explaining the origins of this project and highlighted the main ideas orienting its construction. The EUB is an European extension of the national Urban Boundaries (UB), a project funded by Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia and hosted by the Institute of Education, University of Lisbon. The UB emerged as a result of a long process of socialisation between its principal researcher and two local communities of Costa de Caparica: Bairro (a slum established four generations ago gathering immigrants and Portuguese) and Fishing (a miscellany of fishermen, from north, south, and countryside of the country, using, among others, what is called in Portuguese arte de xávega, a hard and very intuitive fishing technique). The structure of the project had been collectively thought through since 2002 by a movement of people (the Urban Boundaries Movement) sensible to injustice and humanity, though the project itself only started in 2012.
The EUB takes the methodology developed in the national project, and extends it to five European countries. It rests on a critical participatory research approach that brings together local communities, stakeholders, local and national organisations and academia. In particular, research is envisaged to expand the knowledge developed within deprived communities and about the ways in which their sense of identity is shaped. A critical participatory research approach allows all the participants of the project to work together in solidarity in order to address one of the deepest manifestations of crisis in Europe, namely the emergence of communities that live in extremely poor conditions. The research developed is tailor-made in order to address the particularities of each community; multidisciplinary, involving a panoply of expertise and stakeholders; and geographically balanced, comprising three countries from the “south” of Europe and two from the “north”. Overall, the project brings together an interdisciplinary team of researchers, technicians, and members of communities from Portugal, UK, Spain, Greece, and Germany, creating opportunities to develop an organic research enterprise in the European context. Local associations of arts, education, and professional classes; non-governmental organizations; architecture ateliers; images producers; art gallery; studies centres; complete the team of the technicians of the project. The same diversity is present in the communities of the European Urban Boundaries: fishing, illegal settlement, refugees, scholars in different environments and at different levels, and Roma.
Rhetta Moran presented the association that will participate and represent the UK local community in the project. RAPAR (Refugee and Asylum Seeker Participatory Action Research, http://www.rapar.org.uk) is a Manchester-based human rights organisation working with people, both locally and further afield, who are at risk of having their rights denied. RAPAR works with — and many of them are, or have been — displaced people facing challenges relating to citizenship, housing, deportation, employment, education, personal safety and other problems. In terms of research, RAPAR develops and delivers cutting-edge participatory research and learning opportunities nationally and internationally, ensuring that our work takes place within a context of continual action learning, research and development. RAPAR will also be one of the four transversal technicians of the project – people who operate in more than one of the countries, comprising architects, artists, academics, film directors and editors. Together with CommonWord (http://www.cultureword.org.uk), MMU and Manchester Art Gallery, RAPAR will organise a team of technicians that will explore the interstices of education and art when working with local communities. Sahera Parveen (RAPAR), Sophie Gardner (RAPAR), Martin de Mello (Commonword) and Natalie Van Gaalen (MMU) will lead this consortium.
In the afternoon a round table took place to discuss the constitution of the Manchester’s team of transversal technicians. Sahera, Sophie, Martin and Natalie presented their ideas and implementation strategies. There were comments by Liz Jones, the Professor at the institute representing the project, and Hauke Hauke Straehler-Pohl, from Freie University, Berlin, who represents Germany in the project. During the discussion many questions were raised concerning the vicissitudes that a project involving direct work with local communities encompasses. I highlight some that may stimulate some comments:
a) How to work with local communities from a place in the academia?
b) How to conceptualise communities’ problems not as their own problems, but as problems caused by macro dynamics external to those communities?
c) What can local communities teach us about European policies?
d) How to create spaces of dialogue and conflict between people that have been separated from the social fabric and local and global authorities?
e) How to align different local communities, some of them in conflict within themselves, towards a common goal?
f) How to address the issues of communication deriving from the different languages used in the project?
These are some of the questions that we discussed which will be central to our project. We thank all the participants in the seminar for their ideas and discussions. This was revealed to be a very productive day as part of the ongoing construction of the European application. The team will have the next two months to finish the proposal and submit to the European Council. We may not win the grant, as this is a very competitive application, but the pleasure of knowing new people and the possibility to further develop a movement that goes beyond an academic project has already made this work worthwhile.
List of participants
Martin de Mello
Natalie Van Gaalen