The Loka Institute

Making research, and science & technology responsive to democratically-decided social and environmental concerns

 

Loka Institute - STS in Action Project

Rick Worthington, Pomona College

Posted August 11, 2008

I.  Engagement Activities

Local Engagement

My primary collaborations over the past 15 or so years have been (1) projects joining my classes in Politics of Community Design and Politics of Environmental Justice with grassroots activists; (2) engagements via internship placements with NGOs, government agencies, and businesses that are required of students majoring in the Program in Public Policy Analysis that I chair (see http://www.public-policy.pomona.edu/internships/ for a list of the internships); and (3) campus activism at Pomona College and the Claremont Colleges.  Although these collaborations occur throughout the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area, they are focused in the Inland Valleys region around Claremont.  The largest cities in this region are Pomona, Ontario, Riverside, and San Bernardino.  These are low income cities ranging in population from 150,000 to 250,000, with Latinos comprising up to 65% of their populations.  Many of their residents are recent immigrants.  The campus activism usually involves coalitions and partnerships with local community activists, so it gets beyond the “bubble” of the Claremont Colleges and into the Inland Valleys.    

 Although these activities overlap, and often involve the same students and organizations at different times, their goals and characteristic forms vary. 

 The internship program is by any measure a success, but its ”community-placed” character imposes limitations that are worth noting.  Essentially, we have a supply of students, and in order for them to complete graduation requirements, we need to place them somewhere for an internship.  Each placement thus originates in campus rather than community goals.  This drives the internship activities toward the lowest common denominator of baseline skills that any student would be expected to have, and routine tasks that the host organization is eager to “outsource”.  The host would act differently if the collaboration had been their idea, but that is rarely the reality in this type of program.  We are thus left to create something more dynamic that is exciting and important to the organization, and that challenges the student to put her heart and soul into the effort.  We succeed more often than not, but this happens in spite of the basic structural dynamics in our program, rather than being an outcome of them. 

 Another limiting feature in our program is that many students gravitate toward internships with more established and mainstream organizations that look good on resumes, and thus miss the opportunity to provide help where it is arguably most needed, e.g., to new citizen groups riled up over an immediate issue such as racist practices in the police department, or a hazardous development proposal by a big corporation.  Although it would seem that the more established organizations offer the advantage of more resources and stability that should be assets for an internship, in reality we’ve had things go wrong from the host’s end in all types of organizations, rich and established as well as barely surviving. 

 Whether the limiting factor is the organizational dynamic in our program or the understandable concern of students to build a record for their future, the underlying “problem” is that the goal of the internship is education for the student, so building something more than a low-level exchange of resources (grunt work in exchange for the opportunity to get “practical experience”) requires action to transform the underlying incentive structure.  We work within these limitations, and at the end of the day I am proud of the outcomes (on which more below).  

The community engagements completed through my classes differ in noteworthy ways from these internships.  I require a group term research paper, usually forming 3-4 groups for different projects in a class of about 15.  Students have the option of doing a strictly academic project or getting involved in some sort of practical action, but in both classes we study the philosophy and role of community-based research (CBR) in grassroots activism, so most students are eager to try their hand at the latter.  The action-oriented inquiries require a research product that is designed to have practical value for a community partner, but students must also substantially engage with relevant academic literature in a final essay assignment that assesses their research experience, and they always confront challenging methodological issues in their projects.  As a consequence, there is no dichotomy between “academic” and “engaged” work in the class, just different modes of undertaking academic learning. 

The projects originate from community groups in the course of my interactions with them over time, in response to my invitation to submit ideas, or from students, who bring ideas about for projects on campus issues (in other words, they do research based in their community), as well as from community groups they know through internships or activism.  These projects often entail more advocacy for the host organization’s objectives and goals than one sees in traditional internships.  This probably reflects the fact that they typically originate from the community side of the partnership, and the fact that, in team projects, a culture of solidarity can emerge and overcome the narrow professionalism that cam envelop the individual student in an internship assignment.  A collapsed time frame also helps.  Students in the Public Policy Analysis program search for fall internships during the prior spring, so the host organization has little idea what the student will actually do when he arrives.  In contrast, matching a group of students with a community group in the compressed time frame of a single course is very challenging, but once it is made, the connection is immediate for both parties.  This gives it more life.

The principal outputs of the internship and course-based efforts just reviewed are student senior theses and project reports for the community partner, or in some instances making the case for a policy change to authorities.  These products have played a role in a wide array of practical outcomes:  prompting the Pomona College Board of Trustees to declare an environmental policy (several years later, we are catching up with the rest of the academic world around campus sustainability); helping parents of elementary school students in Pomona resist a particularly harsh implementation of No Child Left Behind that was changing the curriculum and the culture for the worse (in their opinion); providing research support for a campaign to stop a new warehouse development in a residential neighborhood, across the street from a high school (our region has the worst sprawl in the U.S., according to a 2002 study [Reid Ewing and Rolf Reindall, Measuring Sprawl and Its Impacts:  The Character and Consequences of Metropolitan Expansion (Smart Growth America, 2002]); helping campus officials devise effective means of student participation in the design of a new residential hall; and many more. 

Hands-on projects include helping elders in the Tongva tribe (the first people in the San Gabriel River watershed) build a traditional gathering circle at a regional park, and producing a brochure that describes native plants and their uses in Tongva ceremonies; and building a rammed-earth superadobe dome on the College’s organic farm (http://www.pomona.edu/Magazine/pcmfl06/DEtoday3.shtml).  This is the first such structure permitted in Los Angeles County, but another is now planned by a Claremont NGO that provides mentoring and other social services to local youth. 

Another outcome, of course, is that students carry these experiences with them.  One example:  Charles Cange, who spent his senior year (2002) researching with local residents the health effects of a bus fueling facility located adjacent to an elementary school, now has a Fulbright Fellowship to investigate the effects of uranium exposure (from spent munitions) on children in Kuwait.  His community engagement at Pomona appears to have solidified a long term commitment to advocacy research in children’s health.

 

          Campus Activism

A final arena of local engagement for me has been traditional campus activism.  I rarely charge into such issues on my own, but am invited by students and colleagues to get involved in environmental and social justice issues that consistently pop up, such as rights for food service workers, campus design and sustainability, and new institutional initiatives.

My role as a campus activist entails more direct action on my part than the student-centered projects, but like them also involves a lot of brokering among different parties.  Two long term movements (and their intersections) may turn out to be significant beyond the immediate Claremont context. 

The first movement created and built the campus organic Farm (where the superadobe dome is located).  The Farm was started by students as a quasi-authorized undertaking, but is now a part of the curriculum with a half time agro-ecologist on staff.  In the decade plus of the Farm’s existence, conflicts between students and administrators (the latter with legitimate concerns over safety) have at various points threatened its existence.  Throughout this period, I have found myself mediating between the parties, along with my colleagues Heather Williams and Rick Hazlett, although our basic allegiance to the student goals have always been clear. 

Just as we thought things were moving toward a more stable rapprochement, and as we were asking the administration for additional land to accommodate a “Farms and Gardens” course, the administration informed us that they had plans for that part of the campus that would require moving the Farm to a nearby site.  This would consign a decade of painstaking soil-building to insignificance, and leave the dome as a stranded outpost, rather than the architectural and cultural center of the Farm.  I told the president right off the bat that this would go over like a lead balloon, which he understood, but he was unmoved.  The students, on hearing of this scheme (it was revealed during winter break), were of course quite moved.  They mobilized, formed committees, documented the landscape in detail (having learned the use of global positioning equipment and software on the fly, some of them doing this as a project in my Environmental Justice course), critiqued the campus planning proposal, researched farms at other liberal arts colleges, made the case for the academic, ecological and social responsibility values of the Farm at its existing site, generated press coverage, arranged meetings with vice presidents, the president, and trustees, and much more.  Their proposal to preserve the existing Farm and add a plot for the course was ultimately approved by the Trustees as a part of the campus master plan.  While there was a conflict dimension to this campaign, and a few harsh words with the president and soft demonstrations outside his office, more striking were the seriousness of the student efforts, the effectiveness of their internal organization and ability engage and resolve conflict, their respect for science, their impeccably-composed documents, and especially their remarkable diplomatic skills.  Being a part of this was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. 

The second case of long term campus activism started in the mid-1990s, when I was asked to serve on a planning committee for a proposed new institution in Claremont that became the Keck Graduate Institute for Applied Life Sciences (the five undergraduate colleges and now two graduate schools are all independent entities, linked in a consortium with a common library, cross-enrollment, etc.).  KGI is a master’s-focused school with a small number of doctoral students that works with industry to commercialize biotechnology, turning out graduates who are skilled in the research and business components of this commercialization process.  It became controversial for two reasons. 

First, the proposed site was a relatively undisturbed patch of coastal sage scrub (the native habitat in much of southern California, which has been largely eradicated) that has been a biological field station for several decades.  Disrupting the field station was unpopular with just about everyone except the project sponsors:  not just field biologists, but environmentalists on and off campus, townspeople who appreciate the open space and especially the view shed to the nearby San Gabriel Mountains, and faculty, students, staff, and residents in general.  The second controversy was Keck’s policy to have an untenured faculty, which raised the hackles not only of the faculty at the Claremont Colleges (all of whom passed resolutions condemning the policy), but also drew fire from some local residents, who view the integrity of the Colleges with a measure of civic pride.  I was again in the middle of things, with most of my advice on the planning committee going unheeded; and frequently on the receiving end of inquiries from the press that resulted in published quotes that really irritated the most ardent backers of KGI.  The new KGI president on a few occasions attempted to intimidate me with memos reporting my bad behavior to my president and selected trustees, but I stood my ground and was quietly applauded by my president and others in authority. 

There were meetings in packed rooms on both the land use and tenure issues over a period of several years (and the tenure issue was written up in Jennifer Washburn’s University, Inc.:  The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education).  At one point, all of us, including students, faculty and residents, launched a petition campaign to submit the City’s authorization of the proposed campus construction at the field station to a referendum.  When adequate signatures were secured to place the referendum on a general election ballot, KGI withdrew their plan to build a new campus, and instead hunkered down in what had been temporary quarters about a half mile from the other colleges, where they remain to this date.  Other actions were a lawsuit by Friends of the Bernard Biological Field Station that was settled with about half of the field station being preserved for 50 years (http://www.fbbfs.org/; see also the more radical Students for the Bernard Field Station at http://www.studentbfs.org/wiki/index.php?title=Main_Page, which criticized the settlement as a sellout); and a few years later an action in which students chained themselves to the Claremont University Center building entrances, ultimately being hauled off to jail for trespassing. Many faculty members, including me, intervened to dissuade campus authorities from suspending the students mid-semester, arguing that justice should instead be rendered by the municipal court. 

Throughout this saga, I was mildly surprised and disappointed that the STS angle on these events—most vividly embodied in the literal displacement of field biology by biotechnology at the field station, which in turn reflects a more fundamental shift in funding patterns to serve elite prerogatives in the research system—drew relatively little attention.  People instead mobilized around the land use and tenure issues.  This gap between what mobilizes people in the knowledge-making arena and the larger decisions shaping it remains a central interest for me.  Unless the gap can be closed, knowledge will become an even more significant weapon of dominant power structures in our “knowledge society” than is already the case, making us dumb in new and significant ways. 

   

          New Institutions

A hopeful sign from emerging in part from these developments is a proposal that about ten faculty developed in 2007 for a new graduate college, the Claremont Institute for Environment and Design.  We would locate the Institute with a very light footprint on the field station, and use the rest of the field station in its natural state for the curriculum.  The proposal remains under consideration by the Claremont University Center Board of Overseers.  Should it be approved, we will have placed some limits on the biotech expansion in our part of the world, and created a very different learning institution that preserves a treasured community site and irreplaceable scientific resource.  Moreover, a new scientific institution would have emerged from student, faculty, and community initiative, rather than elite decree and global financial interests (the normal drivers of research and learning institutions today). 

Another new institution to which I have contributed through all of the local engagements described in this section, and through service on various task forces and planning committees, is a Community Partnerships Center at Pomona College.  The Center is a priority in Pomona College’s new strategic plan and capital campaign, and should be up and running within a year or two. 

National and International Engagement

I have spent considerable time the past five years through the Loka Institute (on whose board I serve) advocating for broader public participation in nanotechnology research and development programs.  We acted virtually alone among NGOs to persuade Congress that the 2003 nanotech R&D bill (The 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act) should require public input on the priorities in the program and the proposed uses of nanotech.   The effort was spearheaded by Colleen Cordes of Loka’s Board, with able assistance from graduate intern Evan Crutcher.  Evan collaborated closely with me on background research for the bill from a distance of 2500 miles without skipping a beat. 

After the legislation was passed, we convened a panel of community activists from around the country at Howard University in 2004 to provide recommendations for implementing the public participation provisions (these recommendations have been largely ignored by the authorities).  In 2007, we joined up with a coalition of some 60 NGOs worldwide, producing numerous documents including a joint statement of principles for regulating nanotech (the coalition became NanoAction, at http://www.nanoaction.org/nanoaction/index.cfm, and is housed at the International Center for Technology Assessment in DC, with which Loka has had good relations over the years).  Loka’s participation in this endeavor was again energized by Colleen, but we also included community activists in document development and conference calls in an effort to model active participation by and substantive contributions from people representing diverse walks of life.    

Currently (August 2008), we are working with 5-6 other organizations in the coalition to change the nanotech reauthorization bill before Congress.  The bill as it stands promotes rapid commercialization in advance of research that would develop the tools needed to characterize nanomaterials and understand any potential harmful effects.  We have mostly run into a brick wall, with a smidgeon of receptivity from Senator John Kerry’s office.  Senator Kerry heads the relevant Senate committee and has made nice-sounding statements about responsible development of nanotechnology, but the legislation contains only weak provisions to act on these concerns.  One of many documents and reports produced for this legislative process, on which Loka took the lead, is model nanotechnology legislation, including a rationale for specific components of the legislation.  All the Loka documents on nanotech can be accessed at http://www.loka.org/FedNanoPolicy.html

In the first 3-4 years of the new millennium, I was privileged to work closely with Loka’s Community Research Network.  I helped plan the last conference we had in Sandstone, Minnesota, in October 2003.  It was the best conference I attended in my life, and the work on the planning committee with dedicated community researchers was an intellectual challenge and a privilege.  Our report from the conference is at http://www.loka.org/conf2003/2003CRN_report.pdf.

A new Loka initiative is serving as the U.S. coordinator for WWViews, a global citizen consultation in advance of the United Nations COP 15 deliberations on climate change that will be held in Copenhagen in December, 2009 (http://www.wwviews.org/).  We are working closely with our long time friends at the Danish Board of Technology to fund 2 – 6 consultation sites in the U.S., and to do action research on the WWViews consultations with collaborators in other countries and at the Copenhagen meeting.  Long time Loka friends Dick Sclove, Madelaine Scammell, and Pat Hamlett are part of the working group.

The STS in Action project which is the focus of this contribution will also include a reader of STS engagement activities.  Former Community Research Network Director and continuing Loka collaborator Khan Rahi, Pomona student Katie Duberg, and I have launched an inquiry on grassroots participation in the research system that will be the basis for our contribution to the reader.  We are interested to learn how organizations in the “third sector” of knowledge production influence or might play an enabling role to influence the research system.  Our early results show a dynamic trend of influences over time, but at this point they are insignificant in the larger context of what’s taking place globally.  We hope this research will identify ways in which grassroots NGOs might play a more significant and sustainable role; and that STS in Action will encourage more and better engagement in this important and exciting part of the academic world.

 Past Engagements

 During the 1990s I engaged with a very different constituency as Research Director for the University of Southern California’s Center for Telecommunications Management, where I built an industry-funded applied research program and worked closely with loaned executives from telecom giants such as AT&T and British Telecom.  The players and their goals were very different from the partners one encounters in community work, but many of the cultural gaps between academicians and practitioners are strikingly similar in both cases.  Our research group became known for its skepticism about Internet hype during the dot.com boom, and valued by the global corporations sponsoring us, who were being looked to for billions of dollars in investment in what turned out to be an environment of vastly inflated expectations.  One executive from a German Fortune 500 company that was preparing a bid for that country’s cable network (a multi-billion dollar proposition) expressed a sentiment we often encountered after hearing our research results on prospects for new telecom services in that market:  “It’s nice to hear from someone who isn’t so ebullient.”

 I got my start in community engagement as an undergraduate at Berkeley, specifically in the April 4 Coalition of campus and community groups that elected a progressive slate to the Berkeley City Council on that date in 1970.  This movement also helped Councilman Ron Dellums succeed in his bid for the local Congressional seat, where he served with rare distinction for several decades.  My role in this was trivial, and this was traditional political activism rather than a joint effort in research and learning along the lines of today’s community partnerships, but it impressed upon me the possibilities of reaching across boundaries.

 In graduate school at the University of Oregon during the 1970s, I was involved in a number of campus-community initiatives in planning for local sustainability and economic democracy.  Some of the resulting institutions survive to the present.  While recently researching the low income Whitaker neighborhood in Eugene where we had helped get things rolling in the 1970s, I was thrilled to discover that a business with two organic markets in the Pacific Northwest had been recruited in the 1990s to open a store in a building left vacant when the neighborhood Safeway closed.  Similar closures have beset poor neighborhoods across the country.  Typically, this leaves residents with no viable food outlets in the neighborhood, instead requiring them to make their way to a distant Wal Mart (or similar outlet at the end of a global supply chain) to acquire groceries.  The capacity of the Whitaker neighborhood to plan for its own economic future was built over several decades, and accounts for the unique and positive outcome there.  The evolution of these institutions has a long and rich history, but the campus-community partnerships first developed in the 1970s are a part of it (see Daniel Goldrich, et al.  “Working Toward Community-Controlled Economic Development and Environmental Enhancement; the Case of the Whiteaker Neighborhood, Eugene, Oregon,” in G.J. Coates, ed., Resettling America:  Energy, Ecology and Community, Brick House Publishing, 1981).

 My first professorial appointment was at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (1977 – 1990).  When I arrived, there was already a Center for the Study of Human Dimensions of Science and Technology, which awarded a master’s degree.  I immediately fell in with a number of colleagues in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences (especially Sal Restivo, Tom Carroll, Deborah Johnson, Mike Zenzen, John Schumacher, and Ned Woodhouse) to expand on this small but interesting center by developing a comprehensive STS program.  By 1981 we had closed the departments of Anthropology and Sociology, and History and Political Science, and created an STS department.  Shirley Gorenstein had not been particularly active in the creation of the new department, but was the perfect chair for it, and helped turn our visions into reality with her unparalleled leadership.  I was the first graduate director and headed the effort to create a doctoral program, and participated in all the other curricular and personnel developments.

 On reflection, one experience in particular stands out for me from this period.  At the outset of my tenure as graduate director, I decided that it would be important to figure out what on earth people holding our master’s degree in Science, Technology and Values would do to make ends meet after finishing our program, an issue which had previously received astonishingly little attention.  Our subject matter was a mystery to most people inside academe, and virtually unknown to those in industry, government, and the nonprofit world (and thus not even rising to the status of a mystery).  So I visited prominent RPI alums in all these sectors to tell them what students learned in this program and what unique skills I thought they picked up in the process.  With no exceptions, these executives could cite numerous positions in their organizations where this knowledge base and skill set would be valuable.  Armed with this information, I spent the next few years mentoring students in the ways of determining how their knowledge, skills and interests could be helpful to various organizations, and how to articulate this.  Success was neither immediate nor overwhelming, but in time most students found their way to rewarding jobs after graduating. 

 I still vividly remember one event in particular, when I received a call at home from a prospective employer interested in one of our master’s graduates whose work had come to his attention.  On hanging up the phone after extolling the student’s virtues, I realized a fundamental shift had just taken place:  instead of me calling or writing prospective employers to tell them about our students, the employer was calling me to ask.  This is directly analogous to marketing interns to host organizations vs. responding to community requests in campus-community partnerships.  When the people with the substantive knowledge need initiate the contact, the dynamic is fundamentally different and, in my experience, the relationship is far more beneficial for all parties. 

 I make no claim that good work for people with STS graduate degrees is a walk in the park, and I get the picture from some of my occasional conversations with graduate students (occasional because Pomona College awards only bachelor’s degrees) that their professors are obsessed with academic publication and often indifferent about nonacademic jobs.  But the night I received that call about our student, I knew in my bones that STS had become real, rather than an idea/aspiration that a group of us had for the future.  One engagement task for us in STS, now that it is an established area of inquiry that has conference hotels bursting at the seams, is to further develop and nourish the multiplicity of rewarding and remunerative pursuits that people schooled in the field can take up.

 II.                 Challenges

 The goals of the foregoing activities (with the exception of the corporate-sponsored research, which was a foray into a different realm driven in part by curiosity about what was going on over there) have been to actively promote constructive change, and in particular to encourage knowledge-making practices grounded in the idea that everyone, not just certified experts, has something to contribute to inquiry and learning.  These align with my academic career goals of helping people develop their capacities for independent thinking, and to be responsible to others in the process.  I see numerous cultural and institutional patterns that impede these goals, so my aim is to help change those patterns.  As the first section of this essay should demonstrate, engagement has been the central means and impetus by which I have endeavored to effect that change.

 In the vast literature that has been produced on politics, expertise, and public policy, I like Charles Lindblom’s formulation the best (especially as presented in Inquiry and Change:  The Troubled Attempt to Understand and Shape Society, Yale University Press, 1991).

 In this work, Lindblom examines sources of the impairments that constrain social inquiry by lay people and professional researchers alike.  These range from the persistent efforts of parents and teachers to induce conformity in children at the expense of independent thinking and action; to the defense of elite socioeconomic advantages by means of obfuscation, misinformation, and intimidation.  The consequence identified by Lindblom and many others is a narrowly delimited public discourse that often prevents the most urgent questions from being asked, let alone discussed.

 While he eschews the prospects for easy remedies, Lindblom clearly points toward intellectual diversity as an important response to this condition.  In his words:

 "Possibly the most effective single way to reduce impairment is to get into circulation a greater variety of messages…An increasingly broad and rigorous competition of ideas can make progress on two fronts:  reducing the deceits and obfuscations of any message through the effects of competing messages; and giving voice to ideas that would otherwise be overwhelmed by louder and more frequent messages (p.293)."

What I would add to this analysis (following legions of CBR advocates, feminist researchers, epistemological anarchists, and others) is that how knowledge is produced shapes what knowledge is produced, and the ways it is used.  The notion that anyone produces knowledge in isolation from others is a misleading myth; even the novelist alone in the study or the inventor in the garage is deeply embedded in a network of social relations, notwithstanding her physical solitude during a particular part of the creative process.  And the idea that experts are automatically in the best position to ask the right questions about a given problem, rather than the people experiencing the problem, is likewise a dangerous assumption that should be challenged. 

What matters is how the social relations of knowledge-making are constituted.  Are they democratic and accessible, or authoritarian and excluding?  Are the people who theorize a particular social phenomenon experiencing what the theory purports to describe, or are they theorizing at distance about the experiences of others?  Clearly, prevailing practices favor abstract formalism over active engagement, and this balance supports the status quo.  While I do not disagree with the arguments for distance between the observer and the observed, and other elements of mainstream scientific practice, I do take issue with the claim, whether it is explicit or implicit, that this is the only legitimate way to interpret reality.  Among the consequences of this bid for monopoly power is the denigration of public discourse noted by Lindblom. 

I concur with neoliberals that we live in a knowledge society, but part company with them over the desired institutional arrangements for producing and using knowledge.  Public education, libraries, more equitable access to learning opportunities, and a host of other developments over the past few centuries create the possibility for a more reasoned, convivial, and equitable application of human knowledge to social needs.  Connecting thinking and doing at all levels is a key element in delivering on this potential.

STS in Action Workshop Abstracts