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CBPAR Summer Virtual Institute 2020

Toronto Knowledge for Change Mentors in Colombia 

Towards the end of October last year, passionate activist-research-practitioners from around the world gathered in Colombia at the Universidad de Los Andes to meet for the first time as the 5th cohort of UNESCO’s Knowledge for Change Mentorship Training Program. This was an initiative of the UNESCO Co-Chairs in Socially Responsible Higher Education and Community-Based Research, who sought to fill the gap in resources and training for community based, participatory action research. 

K4C Mentors in Training in Colombia

A handful of Toronto-based mentors participated in this 21-week training program, where we each collaborated on our own community-based research projects, and participated in a week-plus long, face to face residency, to engage in experiential learning of diverse research methods like muralism, music, theatre, diorama-making, community mapping, and more.

We had the chance to explore challenging, important questions around the nature and responsibility of knowledge and research. What is research?  How might we capture the plurality of human senses, experiences, and expressions, to learn and understand each other better? How might we produce research for the purpose of action and change? How do we honour the spirit of Knowledge for Change? 

Galvanised and inspired by these learnings, the mentors hoped to share these methods, and continue asking and answering these questions with partners in our local Toronto contexts. We envisioned a four-day Summer Institute, bringing together students, activists, community partners, academics, and more. Gathering under the sun, we imagined learning, co-creating, sharing knowledge, values, food, and laughter; to inspire new methods of learning, and mobilising action for social change in an open, participatory, collaborative way. 

Unfortunately, the reality of COVID-19 hit, and we hesitantly pivoted to an online medium to honour social distancing, and keep each other safe. Luckily, partner organisations Toronto Centre for Learning and Development, the Ontario Coalition of International Cooperation, and the Centre for Critical Development Studies at the University of Toronto Scarborough enthusiastically supported this idea. Many hours of meetings, research, curriculum development, technical development, and rehearsal practices later, we were finally ready to host and launch a small test pilot of the Summer Institute for Community Based Participatory Action Research. 

CBPAR Virtual Institute 

Throughout the month of June, we held weekly workshops over Zoom, accompanied by readings and resources, hosted on the open-source education platform Moodle. Our main goal was to introduce the principles and phases of Community-based, Participatory Action Research, and a few select CBPAR methods through a variety of experiential learning activities. Ultimately, we wanted to try and offer a taste of what we had the opportunity to learn in Colombia, and try to share some of our own individual experiences with these methods and other CBPAR projects.

1. Introduction to Community-Based Participatory Action Research (CBPAR) 

In the first session, Isabelle Kim, OCIC Director of Community and Learning, and Elham Rasoulian, IWIP graduate from the Centre for Learning and Development focused on explaining CBPAR’s origins, principles and phases, and distinguishing CBPAR from more traditional approaches to research.

They defined CBPAR as “A research approach that involves active participation of stakeholders, those whose lives are affected by the issue being studied, in all phases of research for the purpose of producing useful results to make positive changes.” (Nelson, Ochocka, Griffin & Lorde 1998, p12)

They also elaborated on the principles of CBPAR — that it was community-driven (the research topic is relevant to the community and promotes community self-determination); participatory (community members and researchers equitably share control in the research agenda and overall execution); and action oriented (the process and results are useful to community members in creating social change). (Ochocka and Janzen, 2014)

During this session, we also heard from guest speakers Alfred Jean Baptiste, Executive Director of the Centre for Learning and Development, Leslie Chan, professor at the Centre for Critical Development Studies of the University of Toronto Scarborough; and Kimberly Gibbons, Executive Director of the Ontario Council  for International Cooperation.

Alfred shared that CBPAR was an incredibly valuable way to build local leadership and capacity, so community members can advance their own issues and lives. Leslie added that CBPAR could dispel the elitist myth that knowledge can only be produced by academic researchers, and contribute to the democratisation of knowledge production through equitable co-creation, and redress the historically extractive, exploitative relationships between academic researchers and communities they studied. Kimberly shared that CBPAR could deepen the building of relationships and partnerships, especially if they started from people’s lived experiences, which was critical in complex power relationships involved in international development solidarity work. 

2. Mindful Participatory Observation 

In the second week, Maggie Huang of the Knowledge Equity Lab and Brooks Yardley of Willow Monastic Academy co-facilitated their session on Mindful, Participatory Observation.

This session introduced mindfulness and participatory observation with community co-researchers as a way to enhance awareness of positionality (i.e. deep critical reflection and awareness of how one’s social conditions shape our worldview and experiences) and enable the integration of different lenses and perspectives to ultimately construct a more holistic understanding of a research topic. 

Given the dominance of Western, Eurocentric knowledge systems, they hoped to respond to the epistemicide (the killing to diverse knowledge systems) by drawing on teachings from indigenous knowledge systems, feminism, and buddhism; and encourage participants to consider other ways of knowing and being. 

Long time meditator Brooks Yardley led the group through a guided meditation, inviting participants to become more aware of the vast richness of their external and internal sensations. He also facilitated some interpersonal meditation games meant to stimulate mindful conversation and observation between participants in the group.

This session concluded with a conversation highlighting the very emotional and embodied experiences that community-based research can reveal. Mindful awareness of these arising was offered as one way to deepen our abilities as empathetic and effective listeners — so that the process of knowledge co-production could contribute to change through witnessing and validating people’s lived experiences, in addition to the material interventions that the knowledge might inform. 

3. Visual Storytelling 

In the third session, Eugenia Ochoa, OCIC Community Engagement Specialist introduced the visual research methods photovoice, photojournalism, and digital storytelling. We started with a fun ice-breaker where we were invited to draw images that represented us. Through this, we learned how images can help synthesise complex concepts, experiences, or issues in an accessible, creative, and compelling way. 

In the context of CBPAR, she suggested that data and insights could be gathered through photographic storytelling with research participants. We learned this experientially through creative ice-breakers encouraging us to draw images that symbolised who we were. We also engaged in the photovoice method, sharing stories and images prompted by the question, ‘What does social justice mean to you?’. It was a wonderful exercise that allowed us to learn about the issues that mattered to our group in a participatory and heartening way.

We ended with breakout room conversations discussing the ethical practices and principles of consent by reviewing the code of ethics drafted by Photographers without Borders. This led to a rich discussion regarding the kinds of ethical and data considerations of telling other people’s stories and images. Who writes these stories? Who contextualises and frames it? How might we navigate the complexities of data ownership and ‘rights’ in a context of our digital [ecosystem]? 

4. Muralism 

In the last session, Karen Villaneva, Program Supervisor at the Centre for Learning and Development co-facilitated the Muralism workshop with community researchers and local muralists Katlego, Blessing, Bareket, and Mick to introduce how muralism can be used as a way to mobilise community within CBPAR.

As an ice-breaker and land acknowledgement, we all drew and learned the indigenous terms of three sacred animals, which was a beautiful way to not only creatively express ourselves and learn about each other, but learn about how deep and rich teachings were embedded in these stories and animals.

Karen shared the history and impact of muralism as a form of resistance, as raising consciousness, encouraging reflection, and igniting action from a social justice lens.

Muralists Bareket and Mick shared different facilitation approaches to muraling, which ranged in involvement community members and muralists had in planning and painting the mural. We then ended by discussing in breakout groups how we might plan a mural based on the case study and findings produced by IWIP researchers Blessing and Katlego. 

5. Bonus Mentor Panel and Q&A Session

After successful completion of the four planned sessions, we hosted one more bonus Q&A session, which would also allow us to respond to all the questions participants had raised throughout the four weeks.

Isabelle shared some of her insight when it came to using CBPAR in monitoring and evaluation. She noted that many funding agencies and research grant bodies were increasingly recognising the value of community-engaged work due to the elevated impact gained through the process of the project. She also emphasised the importance of honouring each communities’ own ways of living and being, and not imposing a funder’s metrics of success when trying to gather data and communicate the impact of a project.

Maggie responded to a question around working with communities of different identities. She recalled Chimamanda Adichie’s warning of ‘the danger of a single story’, emphasizing that we must not homogenise and generalise the experiences of a community. She highlighted that a community is people you are in solidarity with, and not necessarily one who shares intrinsic identity indicators. That said, she also stressed the importance of positionality, being reflexive about the history of your identity and how others’ may perceive you, and the importance of developing authentic, genuine, trusting relationships with community partners.

Karen shared that after years of working on community-needs assessments, she learned that community-driven projects could actually enhance greater ownership by the community, while revealing existing assets, and developing new ones. She also noted the reality of scarce funding in the community development sector, and the importance of a *can-do* spirit, which was echoed by Alfred Jean Babtiste, when doing work that needs to be done, and resources to be funded.

Last but not least, Eugenia emphasised the importance of not thinking about community as an afterthought, especially in the context of international development partnerships. She emphasised that CBPAR is about co-creation, and stressed that ideally, we should be engaging with the community at the beginning, and not just after a project is developed and funding secured. 


This was only the beginning of the Knowledge 4 Change Tkaronto chapter. While we weren’t able to gather in person around food and shared space, the online environment allowed us to connect with learners and community partners from around the world. We look forward to learning, sharing, and co-creating more diverse and creative community-based participatory action research methods with you all.