‘I Do This For Us’: Thinking Through Reciprocity & Researcher-Community Relationships

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The beauty of Black digital spaces lies in the work that takes place within and between the communities that occupy them. Quite often, Black communities write on, reckon with, talk about, and organize around the very issues that define and shape people’s everyday experiences. In “Black Feminist Hip-Hop Rhetorics and the Digital Public Sphere,” Regina Duthely (2017) identifies the Crunk Feminist Collective (CFC) as a group of “Black women [who create]radical counterstories and [build digital]community spaces for women to engage in collective resistance to dominant notions of Black womanhood that seek to silence and render them invisible” (p. 202). While I am not a member of the CFC, I am a member of a few said spaces that do this kind of work. I find that the spirit of my work in the academy is rooted in what Black feminist thinkers identify as a commitment to liberation (Guy-Sheftall, 1995; Combahee Rive Collective, 1977), as I have seen first-hand the amazing things that can happen when Black folks (esp. Black women) get together and use technology to work towards the betterment of themselves.

Still, in these past two years of being a first-gen PhD student, I have come to terms with the fact that my place in the academy and my place within the communities that I aim to work with puts me in a rather interesting and troubling position. In terms of research, I am particularly interested in looking at Black digital community spaces, their functionalities, the relationships between users and the technologies they engage, and the rhetorical and literate practices that tend to emerge from all of these areas. Being able to pursue this work puts me in a position where I can use my research to push back against the forces that work to tear these spaces and their efforts apart. As we often find, it is these types of minority and marginalized communities that find themselves surveillanced and confronted with digital aggressions (Canella, 2018; Reyman & Sparby, 2019). And unfortunately, academic institutions have a long history of producing scholars who both knowingly and unknowingly perpetuate these issues (i.e. white supremacy). I recognize that, if not carefully approached, I am in a position where I could replicate the very things that those ahead of me have worked so hard to avoid. This is why I find such importance in (re)thinking the hows and whys of researcher-community relationships.

So, how exactly do I go about this kind of work/scholar-activism, and how do I do it in a way that is ethical? What are my obligations to the communities that I am part of, and how might that be demonstrated through my work and research practices? The answer to these questions that I find myself returning to (and honestly, still thinking through) lies in ideas around reciprocity and how it should be situated methodologically in my academic pursuits.

Reciprocity, as defined by Ellen Cushman (1996), is an “open and conscious negotiation of…power structures reproduced during the give-and-take interactions of [people]involved in both sides of [a]relationship” (p. 16). In understanding reciprocity as a series of interactions where power dynamics are negotiated to the benefit of both parties involved, Cushman brings into forefront a conceptualization of reciprocal practices and research ethics that not only call for careful self-reflections from the researcher but also a deep, critical look at the social identities and positionings of the communities that researchers choose to work with(in). In this description, I am reminded of Patricia Collins’ (2009) emphasis for Black feminist theorists to understand that “because Black women’s experiences and ideas [lie]at the core of Black feminist thought, interpreting them requires collaborative leadership among those who participate in the diverse forms that Black women’s commmunities now take” (p. 19). Here, I locate a call from both Cushman and Collins for a kind of self-awareness and community awareness that prompts those who work and collaborate with(in) particular communities to continuously revisit what collaboration actually looks like, what our roles should entail when we work with others, and how important it is for our personal and communal identities to be represented in our research.

That being said, the work that I desire to do must not only “[commit]to breaking…barriers between universities and communities” (Cushman, 1996, p. 12), but it must also demonstrate that my participation in these communities is not in vain. Powell and Takayoshi (2003) write that “at the heart of calls for reciprocity…is a recognition/assertion/insistence that research involves building relationships” (p. 399). While I agree with this wholeheartedly, there is more that can be added here. In a rather refreshing discussion around research ethics, Gillan and Pickerill (2012) point out that ideas on reciprocity can become rather complicated now that it is “increasingly possible to benefit [career-wise] from links with social movements” (p. 136). Thus, while reciprocal practices and relationships with the digital communities that we engage should place a focus on building and maintaining relationships, we are still in a place where we should be spending time thinking through our positions with(in) these communities. Frankly, we should be asking ourselves why we are doing the things that we are doing.

In building upon the definitions provided as well as on McKee and Porter’s (2008) work on ethics that asks digital researchers to “[take]into account…the distinct needs, conditions, and wishes of human participants,” I assert that at the heart of reciprocity should be an alignment of one’s values with the communities that they engage. In thinking more about why this is important and how one might go about this work, I ask myself and other scholars to reflect on the following questions:

1) What are the goals/desires/needs of the communities I engage? 

2) Does my work align with and help move these communities closer towards their goals/desires/needs? 

3) Am I willing to dedicate myself, my time, and my resources to meet these goals/desires/needs?

To do activist and community work in the position of a researcher (particularly when working with(in) marginalized communities) means that we should see reciprocity as always being contingent upon the desires and goals of the communities we engage, as these — whatever they may be — should be our goals and values as well. For someone who may not necessarily be a part of the community that they engage, understanding reciprocity in this way still asks them to continuously reevaluate how they position themselves in respects to that community just as much as it asks them to think more about where their dedication and commitments lie. For myself, this means that if I am researching and working with(in) Black digital communities, my alignment to the values of this community means that I am first and foremost concerned about the important work already taking place in them and the well-being of the community members. It means that I am aware of the histories, struggles, and oppressions that these folks–my folks–regularly face. So, my reciprocal practices should directly correlate to my responsibilities in collaborating in ways that 1) aim to avoid surveillancing and silencing and 2) work towards liberation (in whatever form that might take). For everyone who may be thinking through their community-based practices, it means that that most of our work lies in thinking through how our practices are directly tied to the ethical obligations we hold in leveraging our power and positions to support the folks we desire to collaborate with.

Additionally, there should be a willingness on the part of the researcher to use their work and/or whatever resources they have access to to support community members and help move communities towards the goals/desires/needs that currently exist. For example, if research is conducted with sex worker communities that digs into literacy practices developing out of a need for safety, is it not also important to be committed to the destigmatization, decriminalization, and/or the legalization of sex work? How do you maintain these commitments and move forward with them in your collaborations? In the work that you produce? These are the kinds of questions that we should be regularly asking ourselves when we think about our positions as community-collaborators.

That said, this particular framing of reciprocity highlights an exigence for researchers to see their work not necessarily as the ‘exchange’ that more traditional definitions of reciprocity seem to nudge at, but more-so as a collective and gradual move with the communities we engage in a forward and socially-just direction. And while ethical dilemmas are sure to arise as we understand the multitude of issues that present themselves with any kind of community-collaborative or human-centered research (Glass et al., 2018), we need now more than ever for people to be aligned with, vulnerable with, and willing to go above and beyond with the communities they engage. Reciprocity should no longer be seen as ‘I do this for you and you do this for me’ but rather a most genuine ‘I do this for us’.

References

Canella, G. (2018). Racialized surveillance: Activist media and the policing of black bodies.Communication, Culture and Critique, 11(3), 378-398. https://doi.org/10.1093/ccc/tcy013

Collins, P. H. (2009). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, conciousness, and the politics of empowerment (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge Classics, 2009.

Combahee River Collective. (1977). Combahee river collective statement. In Beverly Guy-Sheftall (Ed.), Words of fire: an anthology of african-american feminist thought (loc. 4506-4665). Kindle: The New Press.

Cushman, E. (1996). The rhetorician as an agent of social change. College Composition and Communication, 47(1), 7-28. https://doi.org/10.2307/358271

Duthely, R. (2017). Black feminist hip-hop rhetorics and the digital public sphere. Changing English, 24(2), 202-212. https://doi.org/10.1080/1358684X.2017.1310458

Gillan, K. & Pickerill, J. (2012) The difficult and hopeful ethics of research on, and with, social movements. Social Movement Studies, 11(2), 133-143, https://doi.org/10.1080/14742837.2012.664890

Glass, R. D., Morton, J. M., King, J. E., Krueger-Henney, P., Moses, M. S., Sabati, S., & Richardson, T. (2018). The ethical stakes of collaborative community-based social science research. Urban Education, 53(4), 503–531. https://doi.org/10.1177/0042085918762522

Guy-Sheftall, B. (1995). Introduction: The evolution of feminist consciousness among african american women. In Beverly Guy-Sheftall (Ed.), Words of fire: an anthology of african-american feminist thought (loc. 342-813). Kindle: The New Press.

McKee, H., & Porter, J. E. (2008). The ethics of digital writing research: A rhetorical approach. College Composition and Communication, 59(4), 711-749. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.msu.edu.proxy1.cl.msu.edu.proxy2.cl.msu.edu.proxy1.cl.msu.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com-proxy1-cl-msu-edu-proxy2-cl-msu-edu.proxy1.cl.msu.edu/docview/220714185?accountid=12598

Powell, K. M., & Takayoshi, P. (2003). Accepting roles created for us: The ethics of reciprocity. College Composition and Communication, 54(3), 394. https://doi.org/10.2307/3594171

Reyman, J. & Sparby, E.M. (Eds.) (2019). Digital ethics: Rhetoric and responsibility in online aggression. New York, NY: Routledge.

About Author(s)

Constance Haywood is a second-year PhD student in the Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures department at Michigan State University. Her research interests include Black feminist rhetoric(s) & literacies, online community-building, and digital writing & activism.

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