Scholars who know the real meaning of engaged research

The decades-long conflict in Colombia might have officially ended with the Havana Peace Accords of 2016. However, the social inequities that caused the war and the pain it has left in the hearts of Colombians remain a source of deep concern for museum exhibit designer Diana Ordóñez Castillo who is researching the role of community-based museums in women’s well-being.

In August 2002, when the Taliban swept back into power, Sooriya Arya, a local government specialist in Kabul, had to flee for her life. Up to that point she had been working with woloswal (district heads) across Afghanistan to develop a digital cultural map celebrating the cultural diversity of her homeland and the way in which the country’s many tribes are inter-connected by what she calls “cultural corridors”.

Both of these research projects exemplify a level of civic engagement that is recognised and nurtured by a unique programme of the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities (TN) and the Open Society University Network (OSUN) called “Amplifying the Voices of Engaged Researchers around the World”.

Launched in 2005, the TN secretariat is housed at Tufts University’s Jonathan M Tisch College of Civic Life in Medford, Massachusetts. OSUN was founded in 2020 by Bard College (Annandale-on-Hudson, New York) and Central European University (Vienna), with the support of the Open Society Foundation.

This article on engaged research is published by University World News in partnership with the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

According to Nieves Segovia, TN steering committee chair and president of the University Camilo José Cela in Madrid, Spain, the engaged researcher programme honours the idea of an online global community of practice. “It is a space for engaged scholars around the world to reflect on their civic experience, acknowledge the political dimensions of complex challenges, and deconstruct oppressive systems of power. Simply, this emerging global community of practice is a vehicle for movement-building.”

Erin Cannan, vice-president for civic engagement at Bard College, said both networks (TN and OSUN) “envision a new model of global higher education and value deep partnerships among diverse institutions committed to addressing polycrises collaboratively.”

The wisdom of collaborators

On 14 March, Arya and Ordóñez Castillo were part of a virtual workshop along with 23 other engaged researchers from 14 countries. The TN and OSUN are supporting the researchers – who include both faculty and graduate students – with grants of US$6,000-US$9,000.

By definition, engaged research goes beyond academic study and includes a commitment to long-term sustainable community partnerships that incorporate and centre the expertise of the researchers’ collaborators.

In Arya’s research, this engagement is seen in the fact that woloswal were key to her understanding the main population base of tribes, such as the Pashtuns, Haszars, Tajiks and other 32 ethnicities in Afghanistan, as well as their historical background.

Through an organisation she co-founded she initiated a number of connectivity programmes – ‘cultural corridors’, that show how the tribes are interconnected in terms of culture.

Speaking from the safety of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Arya says, “The idea of the map is to connect the cultural dots of the many tribes in Afghanistan and show how the cultural heritage of one province is interconnected historically with regional countries.”

The cultural map was, in part, an act of historical reclamation. With the help of people who lived near them, Arya included in the map important heritage sites that had been looted during the decades of armed conflict in Afghanistan.

For Arya, her engaged research presents “the jewel of culture, a beautiful pearl necklace” not just for Afghans but also for Westerners – to see the links between the cultures. Arya does not know if the digital map has been destroyed – as it lies beyond her reach on a server controlled by the Taliban.

Since the Taliban have destroyed numerous cultural treasures, including, most famously, the blowing up of the 55 and 38 metre high Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001 because they considered them idols and have in the past forbidden cultural activities they consider un-Islamic such as simply listening to music, there is a high risk that they would destroy the map.

For her project titled “Museums, emotions, and well-being: Community-based museums of memory in Colombia,” Ordóñez Castillo, a Bogotána, has adopted a decolonialised and engaged research methodology which requires her to position herself as much as possible within the life world of the people she seeks to understand, and engage with them rather than simply extract information or feelings from people.

About museology, she says: “It is not part of the traditional scholarship that sees exotic things as objects to be taken and displayed for others’ enjoyment, often in a decontextualised exhibit.

“Rather, it requires the researcher to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the people they are studying, to learn their ways of thinking and being. Physical objects are important to promote discussions around them, to question how they are significant, especially in a museum of memory.”

Colombia: Museums and memory

The two museums Ordóñez Castillo writes about in her thesis differ greatly from traditional museums. The first one was created by the Organización Femenina Popular (OFP), the oldest women’s organisation in Colombia which started as a housewives’ sewing circle promoted by the Catholic Church in the 1970s. Under the influence of liberation theology in 1988, the OFP separated from the church and began advocating women’s rights.

In part, the OFP’s House of Memory and Human Rights for Women (House of Memory) examines the multiple dimensions of the more than century-long struggle between the paradox of extremely poor people living in the resource rich (oil, palm oil and minerals) region of Magdalena Medio, about 375km northeast of the Colombian capital.

Yellow flowers, black dresses, big pots, clothes worn during the protests and colourful ribbons recall the objects used by women during demonstrations against the military actions of armed actors, legal or illegal, to address such a paradox, explains Ordóñez Castillo.

“But what is most important about the museum is what was done with the space within it. It is set up as a forum, a space for debate, a place to engage, to discuss difficult topics.

“The museum is not, as old-fashion museums are, first about the objects. It is about the space defined by the objects, the physical and emotional space that the objects define that invites visitors to think and talk about death, disappearance, the role of the Colombian state in war, but also about love, caring and the means to build a dignified life.”

The second museum under analysis in her thesis is the Colectivo de Comunicaciones de María (Collective) and the Collective’s Travelling Museum of Memory and Identity of Montes de María (El Mochuelo).

Within hours of arriving at El Carmen de Bolívar (at the heart of Montes de María in the northern part of the country) on 9 September 2021, drawing on her 20 years of museum experience, she began to work with women and youth in the Collective to design exhibits. “That day,” she says, “I got engaged with the Collective”. Later, she travelled with the museum.

El Mochuelo offers a safe space to talk about what happened during the armed conflict. It fosters attentive listening sessions in what are called los círculos de la palabra (word circles).

“Talk is very important for us women,” says Ordóñez Castillo. “It is a fundamental tool for us. It was a fundamental tool for the women of Montes de María to deal with the war around them and their fears.”

Women’s well-being

El Mochuelo builds on this tradition and, as is the case with the House of Memory, the objects in the museum, such as the ruins of a rocking chair, [the Colombian artist] Rafael Posso’s drawings of the massacre in which his brother was murdered, the pictures of peasants and cassava farmers, and the museum’s design, are meant to provoke talk – “Not only about the war,” says Ordóñez Castillo, “but about today’s problems: gender violence and the empowerment of women in peace building. And not only about women, though that is the focus. The museum is meant to show and help women to achieve well-being.”

Soraya Bayuelo was one of three women from the Collective who attended the workshop. In 2015, when the peace accord was being negotiated, she was in Havana as part of the victims’ delegation. According to Ordóñez Castillo, the Accord was pioneering because it required the government to implement policies to empower women, including a “heavy focus on the redistribution and ownership of land”, including to women.

One of the singular features of the El Mochuelo is the Tree of Life: Homage to the Missing, says Ordóñez Castillo. According to Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory, between 1958 and 2021, approximately 218,000 people died in armed conflict, including 177,307 civilians. Thousands of them ‘disappeared’, meaning their bodies have never been found. The Tree of Life preserves the presence of the missing on paper leaves hanging from it.

A story Bayuelo told Ordóñez Castillo demonstrates the reverent power of memory embodied in the tree. One day a boy broke into the museum intent on stealing a television from the exhibit. He noticed the tree and saw his father’s name on a leaf. “He stepped back. He told his compitas (buddies) that there was nothing there and that they would leave the place empty-handed. He later volunteered to work at the museum.”

The epilogue to the story that Ordóñez Castillo recorded in her field notes for September 2021, when she was planning an academic event about museums, memory and the social life of death, reverses Ordóñez Castillo’s and Bayuelo’s roles.

After telling Ordóñez Castillo that in 2020, the young man was killed in a massacre, presumably by paramilitary forces, Bayuelo, who was awarded the National Peace Prize of Colombia in 2003, said words that do not need music to form a dirge: “Do you see? We don’t know about curatorship matters or anything like that. What we know how to do is to honour the dead, especially those whose death should not have happened.”

Afghanistan: Peace from a woman’s perspective

In addition to working on her masters degree at the American University of Central Asia (AUCE in Bishkek, Kyrygzstan), Arya has continued to work as an activist with women in Afghanistan – the work that caused her to have to go underground and make her way out of the country after the Taliban returned to power.

The first part of her TN-OSUN project was the creation of an online collection of articles and peace and conflict studies that appeared on Afghan government websites. Though the Taliban closed these portals, copies existed on a server in New York City.

“I was predicting at least 5,000 articles – peace and conflict resolution studies by women covering the past two decades. But it’s many times more than that,” she told University World News, before adding they will be organised thematically: eg, peace, women, war.

Arya envisions the project growing to include women’s organisations and media outlets from around the world as well as think tanks and peace and war studies institutes. It will be, she says, the first website dedicated to peace, security and conflict resolution from a woman’s perspective, a perspective that’s been missing from the discussion.

Indeed, as Arya explains, the absence of meaningful participation by Afghan women in the Doha negotiations fatally weakened the 2020 accord US President Donald J Trump signed with the Taliban that called for the Taliban to be incorporated into the Afghan government.

Not only did the agreement lead a year later to the collapse of the Afghan government, the exit of the US and the seizing of power by the Taliban, but the accord made clear to the Taliban that, for the rest of the world, women’s rights were expendable.

“It is vital that women are given a chair at the negotiation table because we saw the challenges of Doha when we were just given a few symbolic representatives but were not part of the decision-making process,” says Arya.

Presently, girls are banned from primary and secondary schools in Afghanistan and, save for a few medical programmes, women are banned from higher education, says the 28-year-old, whose first name means “God itself” in Sanskrit, and sunflower in Arabic Farsi (Darian Persian), the language of the vast majority of Afghans and the language used in their mosques. (The sunflower was the favourite flower of the Prophet Muhammad.)

Writing as healing in Afghanistan

The second part of Arya’s TN-OSUN project, a continuation of work she had been doing before fleeing Afghanistan, is through the organisation she co-founded named Uzgarish, which means “change” in Uzbek, her native language. In Afghanistan, she taught women how to write articles in which they reflect on their experiences, which merges Arya’s scholarship as a journalism student with social and political engagement. She is continuing this work via VPN.

The articles have two goals: for Afghan women to “reflect on issues that bother them, to help them heal psychologically”, she said.

A woman trained by Ayra to write (but who, for her safety, cannot be named and spoke from an undisclosed location in Afghanistan with her camera off) told the workshop she has been an activist for 10 years.

“I want to share my experience as an activist and how difficult it is for a girl with a disability to live in a society where they are experiencing different types of discrimination,” she said.

A second woman told the workshop that after losing everything after the Taliban returned to power, her psychological situation deteriorated, but Uzgarish gave her a goal and a way to deal with what is happening to her and her homeland.

“This programme made me think more about writing and reflecting on what bothers me inside and learn how to reflect my perspective about various issues.”

The second goal of these articles, Arya stressed, is to engage women to write about their lives to counter the stereotypical Western view that behind the burkas they are forced to wear, Afghan women are illiterate victims.

“I want people to see them as strong people, as strong women, as women who fought through their lifetimes and achieved something at the end of the day, in terms of educating themselves,” said Arya.

“When I was in Afghanistan in 2019, for women it was totally different than what documentaries showed. I could live the kind of life I now live in Kyrgyzstan; I want to show something that happened over these 20 years, the achievements and … the things that they achieved.”

What another Afghan woman activist told the workshop about having to flee Kabul and live in a cabin in another province exemplified Arya’s point. This woman, who also could not be named, told us about providing psycho-social support for women who had lost a son or husband in the years of war in Afghanistan and of the high stress levels experienced by Afghan women.

She concluded by saying, “But, you know, in Afghanistan, this is not the first time that we are faced with problems like this. For 40 years, we faced and experienced these difficulties and problems.” A moment later, she added defiantly, “These generations were different from us; we are more educated and it is impossible to cage us inside.”

At the end of our interview, I asked Arya about her masters thesis, which, as its working title indicates, is another example of her engaged scholarship: “What was the role of the media in psychological warfare and how they assisted the Taliban 2.0 to succeed.”

Arya said the Taliban employed psychological tactics to demoralise the Afghan army. They used social media to highlight the Doha agreement, which portrayed them as more dominant while making the Kabul government appear subservient to the Americans. Moreover, in 388 regions across the country, they disseminated false information through propaganda, falsely claiming they had taken control of other districts.

Arya told University World News she hopes she can put the knowledge she has gained to work as a representative of Afghan women in any future talks about Afghanistan’s future.

Public art in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan, the country that has given Arya shelter, is the subject of another TN-OSUN project, which also focuses on gender, by AUCE anthropology professor Rouslan M Rakhimov. While a traditional Muslim country, Kyrgyzstan is a “secular state”, she says.

Rakhimov’s project, “Promoting Gender Equality Through Public Art: Fostering Cultural Dialogue,” is built around 20 in-depth interviews and two focus groups comprised of members of the artistic community that examines the role of public art in relation to two sets of questions: What traditional values and gender images are reflected in public art and, equally importantly, how does society change under the influence of those images? The second is: How can the voices of public artists who deal with gender issues be strengthened in the face of nationalist and traditionalist parts of Kyrgyzstani society?

Public art, Rakhimov said, is art that is meant for the public sphere, such as murals (though it also includes collections in easily and inexpensively accessed museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York). Performances in public spaces are public art, as are digital works posted to Facebook or Instagram.

The limits of public art were tested in December 2019, Rakhimov told University World News, by a feminist art exhibition that included 56 works from 22 countries. In one installation, a live performance, Danish artist Julie Savery starts out nude and gets dressed. The exhibit was designed to focus attention on the plight of sex workers in the country.

Then Minister of Culture Azamat Zhamankulov called the performance “scandalous” and a “provocation”. While he said he fired the director of the National Museum of Fine Arts Mira Dzhangaracheva for allowing the installation, she claimed she had quit because of the “aggressive reaction [including threats to her and the museum’s staff] from national patriotic forces”.

Yet, Rakhimov told me, and will tell the next “Amplifying the Voices of Engaged Researchers Around the World” programme in a virtual workshop to be held on 20 April, that Kyrgyzstan has a vibrant public art sector that will not refrain from criticising even the ingrained misogynistic practice known as Ala kachuu, bride kidnapping. An estimated 14% of women in the Central Asian Republic are victims of the ancient nomadic (and now illegal) practice, according to a 2015 Kyrgyzstan Public Safety Survey.

“After a series of scandals, including one in which a kidnapped woman committed suicide, which led to some police being charged with the help of NGOs,” Rakhimov says, “activists decided to create murals that dealt with bride kidnapping. Other artists put on performances dealing with the issue on International Women’s Day.”

Referring to a mural painted on the façade of the hostel of the Bishkek Medical College, Rakhimov told University World News: “The beauty of the natural landscape in the mural serves as a poignant contrast to the tragic circumstances that led to Burulai Turdali Kyzy’s suicide, which was a result of a bride kidnapping.

“The artwork serves as a powerful tribute to Burulai and other innocent lives lost to gender-based violence in Kyrgyzstan, and a call to action for change to ensure the safety and rights of women and girls everywhere.”

Uganda: Economic growth through savings

Another TN-OSUN engaged scholar is Joseph Oloba, a lecturer in the school of business, LivingStone International University in Mbale, Eastern Uganda, who has conducted a study of village saving and lending associations (VSLAs) – ad-hoc banks that perform a vital financial role in Uganda’s poor eastern district of Budaka. A community partner is working to implement his recommendations.

Participants in another TN-OSUN virtual workshop to be held on 19 May will hear about how, rather than using official banks, the people of Uganda’s Budaka district have come to rely on the VSLAs, which work according to a cash-based system. VSLA members come together to deposit money into a small box that is kept by a VSLA board member. Each member of the association can ask for a loan and will pay an interest rate of 10%, thereby raising the initial capital of the association and benefiting all members.

Typically loans vary between UGX188,000 (US$50) to UGX564,000 (US$150) and are given for seed, health care, school fees, or purchasing a plot of land.

Broadly speaking, in his research, Oloba did not find problems with VSLA’s administration. The paper-based system of record keeping, however, contributed to the problem of collecting unpaid loans. In some cases, to collect on unpaid loans, VSLA officials had to search the borrower’s homes for goods to sell, including chickens, to pay off loans.

When I asked Oloba what followed from his analysis, he said: “The next part of my study is to come up with better economic models, to test them. And, then to ask them [the people of the region] to adopt them so they can see that they can change their economic situation.”

Along with his research partner, Christine Musenero, the chief district officer of Mugiti sub-county, Oloba is planning to introduce digital record keeping – a task he admits will be difficult because few people in the region have the requisite training.

A moment after telling me about his plans with Musenero, our Zoom call froze for a few moments. When we returned, I asked Oloba to repeat what he’d just said. He thought I’d missed the point about Musenero and began with a short introduction to his role, words that could serve as the epigraph for an article on engaged scholars.

“As an academic, you can’t just say, ‘This thing is not working. So, I give up. I’ll go away.’ Instead, you have to propose a solution.”