Democratization of Knowledge – Street Level Citizens Conversation Circles in Toronto

Democratization of Knowledge – Street Level Citizens Conversation Circles in Toronto

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By Khan Rahi, Canadian Community-Based Research Network, Toronto, Canada

In 2016, the Canadian Community-Based Research Network (CCRN) and its volunteers, based in Toronto, Canada, held a series of community-wide conversations to identify community-driven issues of interest to everyday citizens. The interviews with thematic experts, community-based researchers and civic society activists and volunteers pointed out various scenarios. The recurrent thought centred on the disconnections within the community and the lack of a gathering space to discuss openly relevant local and global issues of interest to everyday citizens.

The conversations led to the creation of “Conversation Circles Project”. The CCRN and a team of volunteers developed and implemented a series of open forums on a range of themes and topics that were identified throughout the conversations.

The project sought no funding from any sources. The meeting room was donated by the owner of a popular private market plaza without any business promotions or conditions attached. The organizing, facilitating and outreaching work was all by volunteer labour.

The social and cultural context for the “Conversation Circles” initiative was an environment where serious discussions took place, whilst until then, research on such issues typically took place at the universities, government and business jurisdictions. These were mainstream, top-down conventional practices. They maintained a particular science communication mindset, streamlined knowledge creation and restricted dissemination of research outcomes, which resulted in keeping everyday citizens unaware or simply denied them access to participate.

The conversations we undertook raised two questions:

  1. Could open street level discussions enable everyday citizens to competently challenge conventionally created knowledge;
  2. Without university, government or corporate funding, would such initiative retain independent research status?

The literature in support of the big picture of the “Circles” reflected that scientific research and technological progress and infrastructure need not to be solely confined to the universities to keep the monopoly to conduct research and maintain a tab on the outcomes. The “Circles” created a conduit designed to provide opportunity to recognize civil society’s role in producing knowledge and to act independently on research outcomes, typically produced by the universities. The initiative helped to avoid the civil society turning into a passive consumer of knowledge (Hess, David 2007). In their attempts, the “Circles” ensured the discussions had relevance to the communities and provided insights into the affected communities and their issues.

The “Circle” project was inspired by the Loka Institute’s “Democracy Project” which promoted that openly accessing and acquiring knowledge of the societal issues is vital in a democratic society. It advocated for a pathway towards building a strong civic culture and to empower everyday citizens to competently challenge conventional knowledge to effect positive change and to benefit from the democratic dimension of disseminating knowledge outcomes (Sclove, Richard 1995).

The “Circles” encouraged civil engagement to increase science and society interaction to define community-driven problems, the choice of solutions and to design effective ways to intervene on the issues (Minkler, Meredith & Wallerstein, Nina 2003).

The search and consultations identified a gradual decline in civic engagement, alienation, barriers to access the conventional knowledge making process, retained by the universities, and restricted the involvement of everyday citizens to use research outcomes to improve daily lives.

The scope to come up with a viable initiative was, indeed, huge. The “Circles”, to be sure, without core funding, did not have the capacity or infrastructure to collect data to address these critical issues raised throughout the consultations.

Against these backdrops the “Circles” project was a local breakthrough. 

The “Circles” provided space for everyday citizens who could walk off the street to participate in these monthly discussions free of charge.  A monthly thematic topic was featured in a non-lecture, hierarchical or prescriptive manner, using a storytelling format. The “Circles” offered informed conversations, discussed different perspectives, raised questions about the dissemination of research outcomes and proposed action plans to resolve issues to improve the quality of life in the community.

Over a two-year period (2016-2018) the “Circles” reached everyday citizens from diverse neighbourhoods to join the conversations in the popular Greek Town neighbourhood of Toronto. A two-hour interactive conversation was accessible to anyone.

In this neighbourhood, the “Circles” were unique citizen driven walk-in forums, a distinct departure from university lectures or paid public speakers. A bill board placed in the plaza’s courtyard announced the event. Flyers and bulletins posted throughout the neighbourhood, civil society service agencies and word of mouth helped spread the events. 

Each “Circle” focused on a theme with a topic, and had an invited or “In House” “Conversation Starter” who unfolded the discussion. The profile and size varied from one “Circle” to the next.

The “Starters” included academic and non-academic researchers, civil society actors and experts who were known for their works and contributions to civil society and community-driven issues. They were invited to share their knowledge, research outcomes and lived experience about the topic. They were not asked to lead but to maintain focus on the topic in a conversation, pose questions or describe scenarios to engage the participants in the discussion.

The selection by invitation was balanced off with “In-House Conversations” on a given topic, which involved one or more designated “Starters” from the “Circle”.

The “Starters” spoke for 20 minutes, then joined the full discussion afterwards. All conversations were facilitated to ensure focus and continuity.

The “Circles” avoided formalized platforms and digital presentations altogether. The participants sat in a circle; a cultural practice accredited to Aboriginal traditions. This ensured that anyone spoke in turn, realized their potential to be heard and remained engaged.

The “Circles” did not function as an opinion gathering entity to lead to any studies or project agendas. No attempt was made to solicit any project funding “bondages” and treadmills. They provided the participants space to access evidence-based resources to discuss civic-driven issues and CBR method of inquiry.

The final segment was reserved for specific suggestions from the “Circle” for a new theme or topic for the upcoming “Circles” or to initiate spin-off proposals for action. The involvement in the spin-off was voluntary. They were beyond the “Circles” and took a life of their own. 

What did the “Circles” do? – Overview of themes and Spin-Offs:

“Local or Global, does helping matter?”

The Canadian Director of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and

Director of Local community-based Shelter for Women shared different perspectives and nature of helping people at critical times. MSF provides critical medical and civilian help provided by their volunteers in war and disaster zones. They dashed in to reach out regardless of the circumstances.

A local shelter for women also dashes off into the Toronto streets to shelter women left out of the city shelter regime. Both delivered critical services by volunteers without government or corporate funds. The “Circles” discussion linked the local and global dimensions of helping those in critical circumstances.

“Sponsoring Syrian Refugees”

Global refugee migration issues touch everyone emotionally and financially at local and global level.

The “Circle” heard from sponsors and sponsored Syrian refugees.

The unique Canadian Private Citizens Sponsorship Program helped large number of Syrian refugees. The myth and realities of voluntarily sponsoring refugees without prior knowledge or contact shared and the sponsored individuals informed about entering a new and unknown destiny were explored. The Syrian sponsorship had a twist; everyday citizens joined at the street level to offer to sponsor refugees.

The “Circle” formed a spin-off group to provide direct help to Syrian refugees stuck in hotels. The group linked up with a neighbourhood medical clinic to provide further resources.

“Poverty Is Everyday Hardship”

“Toronto’s Poor, A Rebellious History (2016)”

Historian/Anti-Poverty Advocate started the conversation, featuring ten-year research on the history of poverty in the city and the fight against it.

“Toronto’s Poor” inspired a spin-off group to look further into the nature and impacts of poverty, using CBR research tools to uncover the hidden myths of poverty in their immediate neighbourhoods.

“Anti-immigrant and Local Rise of Alt-Right Politicians”

The “In-House Starters” shared anecdotes and media reports on anti-democratic and anti-immigrant trends in light of the impacts of Donald Trump’s government in the US. The conversation focused on emergence of the group of elected politicians calling for “Anti-Canadian” screening tests for new immigrants and refugees.

A Political Scientist “Rejoinder” provided the context for the anti-immigration and alt-right movement impacting the multicultural character of the Canadian society. The “Rejoinder” provided a set of questions to challenge further the myths associated with global migration.

Conclusion

The “Conversation Circles Project” is small and limited in scope to produce significant outcomes. That said, the “Circles” received an enormous amount of support from multiple sources of civil society. Not to be dependent on the funding regimes, middle operators, and agency agendas, was praiseworthy. The circles participants also found it refreshing not to be the “subject” but rather the users and creators of knowledge and research outcomes. The interactive open space provided the participants security to share their personal anecdotes safely and assured their views respectful treatment.

The challenges were enormous. The project lacked research infrastructures and resources to carry extensive community consultations to stream the “Circles” and promote the democratization of knowledge to enable every-day citizens to collect data to challenge conventional knowledge of the issues to effect change. Also, the spin-off initiatives could have used extensive CBR research tools to create team research and collaborative environment to establish a community-based evaluation system to measure the impact of the spin-offs. They became “run-away” projects.

The participants were diverse. The vast majority, typically have had no experience in speaking in public or sharing their views with complete strangers.

The “Circles” discontinued due to Covid19 epidemic.