What’s happening in Duisburg? Part 1
Jess Palka & Sarah Y. Kanatli
During the last winter semester (October 2021 – March 2022), five students from the MA Sociology and Socioeconomics programmes at the University of Duisburg-Essen took part in the seminar module entitled “Community-Based Research in Marxloh’s ‘Hidden’ Economy”. The objective of the module was to familiarise students with community-research partnerships through an experiential learning approach. The course is just one stage of an ongoing effort to develop such a partnership between the University, local practitioners and ideally residents themselves towards better understanding and finding innovative solutions for locally-defined socioeconomic problems.
Students learnt how to develop a research proposal consistent with the principles, politics and practices of Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) in relation to a real-world socioeconomic challenge. This research approach emphasises the value of experiential learning and critically exploring the typical assumptions about the goals of and means by which social research is conducted, including whose knowledge is included or excluded. By spotlighting community engagement, critical thinking, researcher positionality, the cocreation of ‘knowledges’ and methodological diversity, CBPR is one pedagogical attempt at decolonising university curriculums. The ultimate goal is to achieve a mutually-beneficial collaboration between researchers and community members in designing and implementing research projects to meet local needs and positively effect social change.
On the one hand, students benefit from gaining practical experience in collaborative project management, combining theoretical and practical knowledge to solve real-world problems, and improving both hard (methodological, technical) and soft (presentation, facilitation, teamwork) skills (Kindon & Elwood, 2009; Pain et al., 2013; Strand et al., 2003). On the other hand, community partners can benefit from the scientific skills, knowledge and enthusiasm that university students possess, the creation of a space to discuss and focus on research tasks that might not otherwise be possible in their day-to-day work, and from the building and strengthening of a long-term community-university partnership towards meeting local needs (University College Cork, 2021).
This course was designed to bring students closer to not just concepts or data but also to Marxloh itself, so that they may enrich their understandings of local issues through dialogue and collaboration rather than from behind a computer screen. The students met four times over the course of the semester with a group of practitioners from the Werkkiste Duisburg, Kommunales Integrationszentrum (KIZ) Duisburg and the (at that time) Entwicklungsgesellschaft Duisburg-Marxloh to learn about the migrant welfare challenges in Marxloh; the local organisations, initiatives and alliances established to try to meet these challenges; to tour the local area and see the public spaces in which projects are being implemented; and, finally, to receive feedback on their research proposals.
The practitioners said that the students were motivated and brought new ideas and concepts to understand the situation. They admitted that the project goals were ambitious and that the target group is difficult to win over for the presented questions, because the mistrust is high due to bad past experiences. Nevertheless, the work could be very profitable for all involved – communities, migrants, students and researchers – on these topics. Most reported that the experience was ultimately interesting and rewarding, and that further community-university partnerships would be both desirable and fruitful. However, the real establishment of contact with the people living in Marxloh requires time, perseverance, patience and staying power that would far exceed the timeframe of a even a two-semester practical research project.
One student, Sarah Y. Kanatli, reported that:
“… the seminar was a welcome change to the usually rather “theory-heavy” curriculum. The urge to gain new experiences and to have the opportunity to take part in a practical research project encouraged us students to put in effort right from the start. Over the course of the semester, we were taught not only the topic-related theories in a practical way, but also had the intensive work in the district brought closer to us through the exchange with the practitioners. It became noticeable that insights into real life and practical research processes, including logistical, time and monetary considerations, are otherwise lacking in the curriculum. In this way, both research and community projects could benefit significantly from a joint exchange.
It was also important for us to process the positive and negative insights on a personal level and to become aware of the responsibility that the project entailed throughout the semester. We quickly understood that Marxloh is almost “wilfully” neglected by politics, and that the residents and practitioners face immense challenges every day. In the same way that the project had a formative influence on us, we hoped that we could also make a useful contribution.
However, this turned out to be more difficult than expected since we were unable to enter into a direct and personal exchange with the residents due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We were also always concerned about reinforcing feelings of disappointment in the district, due to our lack of experience. Furthermore, visiting Marxloh felt somewhat uncomfortable since we did not want to give the impression that we were consuming the precarious living conditions of residents for personal gain or enjoyment, or engaging in so-called “slum tourism”. It has become apparent that such community-based projects need plenty of education, empathy and support from different actors for a successful outcome.
Since no actual research project was implemented in this context, I very much hope that designing and implementing research projects in cooperation with practitioners will continue in the future in order to create new solutions for the district and its residents.”
Read more here: What’sUp in Duisburg. Part 2.
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Authors: Jess Palka & Sarah Y. Kanatli