Commitments to Otherwise Possibilities
In this paper, I construct three vignettes of “otherwise” possibilities in response to the guiding questions that frame this piece and that center ideas around art and social justice within youth research. The first commitment is to a Double Dutch methodological stance in qualitative research described through a vignette from my dissertation wherein 1 examine the researcher, the method, and the institutionalization of research (IRB, participant observation, note taking, etc.)- As a performative act, Double Dutch is movement and improvisation offering a pathway to “otherwise” possibilities. The second commitment is to approach qualitative research data collection and analysis with a desire-based framework. This shift from damage-centered to desire-based is described through a presentation of vignette, from a recent school-based research project, in which 1 explore how we might engage and make sense of our participants’ personal stories, dreams, and frustrations shared outside of the formal boundaries of our research sites. The third commitment is to storying or moving away from collecting pain narratives toward engaging in Projects in Humanization as qualitative research (Kinloch &. San Pedro, 2014). This commitment is described through a vignette from a current research project- in-progress that attempts to make sense of how a pain narrative is worthy of recognition and an award, as could be any dissertation that collects and disseminates the same kind of narrative. Each of these vignettes, drawing from literature and previous fieldwork, are occasions for possibilities; they are interrelated, mutually influencing, and held in dialectical tension (Goessling, 2017). It is here where a refocus and redirection on research methodologies, research engagement and research sustainability is necessary.
Commitment 1: “Are You Studying Us?”: Double Dutch as Participant Observation
The anthropological roots of ethnographic research have problematic beginnings in studying the other from a distance, sometimes deceptively or without invitation (Paris, 2010; Tuck &. Yang, 2014; Patel 2015). We know the problematic colonial histories of our chosen methodological practices, and yet some of us underestimate the depth of internalization or enduring coloniality of Western research practices (Tuck & Yang, 2014; Patel 2015). The academy has a way of rendering indigenous knowledge or “otherwise” and alternative ways of knowing as inferior or invisible, privileging linearity, objectivity, and neutrality as scientifically rigorous. In the face of this pressure, we sometimes forget what we know. This vignette illustrates what it might look like for scholars, researchers, and practitioners—particularly critical scholars of color—to re-member (Dillard, 2012) or return to what we know or is already familiar when we make choices about qualitative methodologies or key ethnographic methods.
For this section, I focus on a key method of ethnographic fieldwork, participant observation. As an alternative way to make sense of the fluid nature of researcher positionality within participant observation, I return to what is familiar and imagine/remember the performative art of Double Dutch, the urban game of jump rope from my childhood. Scholar Robin D. G. Kelley (1997) describes the richness and nuance in skill and technique necessary' when jumping within the two moving ropes, much like navigating dynamic tensions inherent in critical ethnographic research with or among minoritized youth in marginalized community contexts. A Double Dutch methodology (DDM) framework involves “learning the ropes” (Gaunt, 2006, p. 37), or crit- ically exploring researcher positionalit(ies). For example, what are the intersecting identities that researchers bring to the research context—teacher, Big sis’, mentor, youth counselor, activist, community organizer? And, what are the multiple roles and shifting orientations that a researcher may experience during the research process? Another component of a Double Dutch methodology includes “planting] both feet” (Gaunt, 2006, p. 174), or considering the theoretical standpoints on which this humanizing approach to youth- centered research is based. DDM also explores this notion of “keeping time and rhythm,” or the ways in which we engage in participant observation that is inclusive of the challenging, authentic, everyday interactions, voices, and experiences of the youth participants/co-researchers working toward equity and justice (Paris, 2010). Following is a vignette from data collected for my dissertation on a youth radio collective to demonstrate how applying a Double Dutch methodology offers an opportunity to reconceptualize researcher positionality and participant observation as occasion for research as a humanizing practice.
As a doctoral student, I engaged in a multiyear ethnographic case study research project with a youth radio collective in the southeast of the United States. The organization was supported by a nonprofit expressly committed to developing activist strategies in response to social issues and was connected to an independent community radio station known as “your station for progressive information.” The youth involved all identified as Black—either African American or Caribbean American. Also, they expressed their identity “As youth... who fight for change in our communities and communities beyond, our mission is to take the skills of community organizing and radio broadcasting to make a change, in not only our communities, but in our world” (Green, 2011).
1 embedded myself into this community-based youth-serving organization, constructing ethnographies of youth literacies in a youth radio collective (as a creative practice) committed to politicizing Black youth. From my researcher journal, 1 reflect on my memos about “becoming” a researcher. Just on the heels of 1RB approval, not yet tempered by the wisdom of experience, I sat perched at the edge of my seat intently observing the transactions among a group of southern Black youth and their animated adult facilitator as they prepared to broadcast a 30-minute live public radio program. Pen to paper, scribbling furiously, 1 attempted to capture, in detail the dialogue, gestures, and activities of this group huddled around a conference table inside the community-based radio station’s facility. 1 was finally “officially collecting data.” Unwittingly and, perhaps, subconsciously, I embodied my new role as an IRB-approved researcher with temporary amnesia of my own personal history and professional experiences as a volunteer in the youth collective space for approximately one year prior to my newest identity. On this rare occasion, I did not participate in the pre-production activities, hold the youngest daughter of one of the founders, со-facilitate the meeting, or offer feedback on a script written by one of the youths. Instead, I sat on the periphery, writing field notes or “collecting data” amid scattered handouts, printed news articles, and assorted snacks.
Soon, 1 noticed the stare of a curious youth participant, Kwame, a Caribbean American 16-year-old young man, who leaned over and inquired matter-of- factly “Are you studying us?” Turning to this young person with his head full of thick locks, I stumbled through a response to the tune of “Uh, no. 1 mean yes. Sort of...,” despite having engaged in countless informal conversations about his and my life, including his interest in scuba diving, which I found to be surprising given the circumstance of his surroundings. Unusually tongue- tied, I was stunned by my own sudden and uncharacteristic discomfort and managed to conclude my response by mumbling something about my reasons for taking notes, but not without a couple of awkward silences. Unknowingly, Kwame had triggered the core of my insecurities.
Although I would later learn that his question came from a genuine desire to know what I was doing, his inquiry instructively highlighted the influence of positivist notions of qualitative inquiry that suggest one should adopt a neutral researcher stance, which resulted in my internalizing and placing, albeit briefly, reductive constraints on my role(s) as researcher. As a junior scholar, I now understand, through practice and scholarship, that authentic participation observation (Paris, 2010) is a dynamic process. Shortly after this pivotal exchange, I began to consider and interrogate assumptions about the appropriate loci of the researcher in the research site, and to question the relationship between role(s), research design, and analysis. This reflective work led to my (re)conceptualization of the qualitative research practice of participant observation as a kind of Double Dutch methodology (Green, 2014).
As a metaphorical methodological approach, Double Dutch is an alternative, “otherwise” way to think about and do qualitative research, specifically participant observation. DDM allows space for flexibility, authenticity, and a process for reflexivity. It contributes to what we know about the dynamic, multidimensional nature of participant observation and problematizes the appropriate loci of the researcher in the research site. Qualitative research is about much more than one-dimensional statistics or people. It is an effort to understand and make meaning of situated, complex human actions and experiences through sustained engagement within a context; it is a space to plant both feet.
A Double Dutch Methodology permits a freedom for me to make sense of my positionality as a Black woman scholar-activist working with youth of color in the context of a community-based youth radio collective. I can be both the jumper and the rope turner in my interactions with participants, rather than just the scholar observer on the fringes of the game. My experience with Kwame disrupted misconceptions I held about what it means to be and do research. I chose this particular moment in my fieldwork because it signaled a necessary rupture and release from being tethered to static research methods. It served as an invitation and an imaginative return to a familiar way of being. The memory of my childhood experience with Double Dutch becomes a culturally sustaining research practice. Moreover, my interaction with Kwame reminded me to trust, value, and build on my relevant prior experiences as a community organizer, youth worker, and workshop facilitator. In the end, participant observation in this youth media context included, but certainly was not limited to, me being more transparent about the research process, caring for babies during workshops, co-facilitating program meetings, chaperoning trips to conferences, keeping notebooks in my car to record notes about conversations had with youth during car rides home, and leveraging the resources (e.g. space, colleagues, and materials) from my graduate institution. This kind of approach to creative, collaborative, and social justice-oriented research invites reflexivity, relevance, and reciprocity, thereby humanizing the researcher and participants.