Center for Fair & Alternative Trade

Colorado State University

“Can We Do Social Justice Research? The Food Dignity Case with Community Food Systems for Economic Development, Sustainability, and Democracy” Christine M. Porter

Presented by Christine M. Porter, Assistant Professor of Public Health, Division of Kinesiology & Health at the University of Wyoming and CFAT Associate

On Friday, October 05, 2012 Christine M. Porter (University of Wyoming Assistant Professor of Public Health and CFAT Associate) presented “Can We Do Social Justice Research? The Food Dignity Case with Community Food Systems for Economic Development, Sustainability, and Democracy.” This presentation explored the multiple challenges facing academics and practitioners in collaborative action research. Joining Dr. Porter for this discussion was Dr. Hank Herrera, a project partner who works on food justice initiatives nationally and in Alameda County, California.

Dr. Porter is Project Director and Principal Investigator the Food Dignity project, a five-year, five-million dollar action-research project, funded by USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) program. Food Dignity’s core research consists of (1) case studies that examine how five organizations in diverse U.S. communities are working to build sustainable food systems, and (2) a sixth case study about the Food Dignity collaboration itself between three academic institutions and the five communities, with one “bridging” action-think tank.   Dr. Herrera works with Dig Deep Farms &Produce, one of the five Food Dignity case study partners.

As Dr. Porter explained, the Food Dignity project operates according to a radical axiology paradigm. Academics generally begin research with questions of reality (ontology) and knowledge (epistemology), with questions concerning ethics and values (axiology) coming last, about how to apply new knowledge. This traditional research assumes detached objectivity and promotes the generation of standardized knowledge. Radical axiology in contrast starts with explicit ethics and values, which in turn drive the research questions and methods.

The “Food Dignity” project title signals both an ethical stance that human and community agency in food systems is an end in itself and a hypothesis that building civic and institutional capacity to engage in sustainable community food systems for food security action will improve the sustainability, health, and equity  of our local food systems and economics.

Dr. Porter’s presentation focused on the “sixth case study” of the action research collaboration. She reviewed social justice research approaches, considering foundational publications ranging from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed to Shawn Wilson’s Research Is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods. Drawing from these and other scholars, she stated that social justice research requires seeking problem-based knowledge, and if researchers want a different research ethic, they will need to tell a different kind of story—one that is rooted in local knowledge and active community participation.  Dr. Porter suggested that neither researchers nor practitioners can solve problems by working from within the framework in which the problem was generated.

Christine Porter noted the tensions that arise between academics and community leaders in action research collaborations, including due to structural power differences that privilege academics and a tendency to ignore or to gloss the historical and current traumas many communities face. The Food Dignity team aims to at least name these differences and acknowledge this trauma as a starting place to enable collaboration. Bridge-building is a central component of the project’s approach.

Food Dignity is tracing the paths taken by US communities and collaborating in mapping and exploring the most appropriate and effective roads forward. The project is both conducting case studies of their community-led food systems work to date and providing and tracking impacts of financial and technical support to help identify the most promising practices. Food Dignity envisions a society where each community exercises significant control over its food system through radically democratic negotiation, action and learning in ways that nurture all of our people and sustain our land for current and future generations, and where universities and cooperative extension are supportive partners in this process.

Food Dignity is supported by Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grant no. 2011-68004-30074 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.