Katherine Lambert-Pennington, Department of Anthropology, University of Memphis
31 May: As people begin to gather in the main hall at L'Agorà Fattoria Sociale, I begin to see familiar faces…Graziella…Turi…Rachelle. We hug and kiss cheeks. I try to use my newly acquired language skills to exchange greets, “Come stai”? and answer their questions, “Come sei arrivata in Sicilia?” As the group grows, we arrange ourselves in a semi-circle. In attendance: two members of Cultura è Progresso, the leader of the Biodistrict, a member of Mamme in Comune, leaders and members of the Participatory Presidium, also others whose affiliations I did not catch, and the CoPED instructor team.
We’re here to discuss and finalize the details of the CoPED summer school. David, President of the Participatory Presidium, reminds us that they have asked CoPED to focus on Waste Prevention. Laura, a CoPED instructor from the University of Catania and long-time partner of the Presidium, facilitates the discussion through a series of questions; some come from the instructor-team, others by the community members.
The meeting covers many things: What are the key public events during CoPED? Where should they be held? Who should be there to participate and learn? Who should do the introductions? Should we try to interview people in the two towns that would be most impacted by the latest incinerator proposal? Or one? What are the key areas of waste prevention they need more data on? Finally, what should the final product be? A report? A databook? A draft grant proposal?
I begin with this scene, reconstructed from field notes and photos, because it not only captures a moment in the field, but also offers a glimpse into the co-production of knowledge and the co-learning relationships that have come to define CoPED, and the work of the Participatory Presidium, more generally. Likewise, this scene situates me in this field, as an instructor, researcher, participant, linguistic novice, and co-creator. With these many subjectivities in mind, I want to unpack the significance of this meeting for training students and doing research in local development contexts.
These discussions, on seemingly mundane things – where we should conduct interviews, which mayors should be asked to open the public events, and what the final product should be – are doing work on multiple levels. At one level, they reveal participants’ accumulated knowledge of waste, their relationships with municipal leaders, and the strategies they use to negotiate the politics of development. At another level, the conversations are tracing the contours of the CoPED action-learning methodology, a combination of experiential pedagogy and participatory action research within the context of a long-term community-university partnership (Lambert-Pennington et al. 2018).
As I listened to the discussion unfold about the public events, I consider their methodological significance for my anthropology students. “Relational activities,” like participatory workshops, social dinners, and public presentations, are moments for interactive-data collection, debate, story-telling, and participant-observation. They are only one piece of the CoPED methodology. A bullet point in my field notebook reads: “inclusive knowledge production; reflection sessions – be intentional.”
As a researcher, I read the structure and content of the meeting in terms of the values and practices that are at the foundation of Presidium’s theory development: legality, environmental sustainability, and shared governance. As the discussion, and sometimes debate, moved between community members, instructors, and back again, I noted: “Is this what participatory decision making looks like? Community organizing… political strategy…”
These jottings help me think about the complexity of democratic participation and the challenge of transforming power structures, particularly in local development contexts. We all know that the complex problem of waste cannot be solved in the 10 days of CoPED. It is a piece of a larger picture that Presidium members will continue to create in our absence. Likewise, all the different ways the Participatory Presidium is transforming local development practices are yet to be revealed. For now, I appreciate the opportunity the Presidium and CoPED represent to participate in the theory and practice of development in action.