Reflections on the Scholarship with Survivors Workshop

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Background

This Scholarship with Survivors Workshop built on the existing programme of Antislavery Early Research Association events and represented both a natural progression and a new direction in this work. Founded in 2015 under the auspices of the AHRC Antislavery Usable Past project, the Antislavery ERA brings together postgraduate students and early career researchers studying slavery and antislavery from across a range of disciplines working around the globe.

At the opening event – held at the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation, University of Hull – postgraduate researchers came together to present their research to one another, taking the first steps in developing a network of ECRs working in the field. In 2016, the network grew and developed through a subject-focused PhD School that further highlighted the different research agendas of participants and focused on key academic skills. In collaboration with the Centre for the Study of International Slavery at the University of Liverpool, the Network convened again in 2017 to focus on translating research to impact.

Past Antislavery ERA events focused on enabling ECRs to develop collaborative relationships with one another, and to learn from, and work with established academics in the field. The Scholarship with Survivors Workshop was the first step in a different direction for the network, focused not only on developing the academic careers of ECRs in the field, but also on contributing to the nature and shape of future research – an antislavery future shaped by ethical scholarship.

“a really insightful workshop and the value of participation from the Survivor Alliance was incalculable.”

The Workshop

On Saturday 20 October 2018, the Antislavery Early Research Association (Antislavery ERA) and the Survivor Alliance came together to host the first workshop dedicated to fostering dialogue between early career researchers (ECRs) and survivors of modern slavery. The workshop brought survivors living in the UK and ECRs to the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab for a day of discussion around a range of key themes. These topics focused not only on the substance of the selected themes, but the ways in which survivors and researchers can and should come together to develop research that gives voice to survivors and serves their needs.

Survivor Scholarship: A Renewed Antislavery Genre

1The substantive part of the day opened with Minh Dang considering Survivor Scholarship as a distinct and fundamental area of antislavery research. Minh reflected on the nature of knowledge, the role of researchers, and the importance of survivor scholarship. She called for existing research to engage with survivors, and shared best practices for establishing meaningful survivor involvement. Minh also called for the development of new pathways to enable survivors to become researchers and develop their own scholarship. It was this message that shaped the directions of the workshop, encouraging researchers to rethink the way that they approach their own understandings as well as their work.

Insights from the Field: Survivor Alliance Panel

The morning session culminated with a Survivor Alliance panel presenting insights from the field, including reflecting upon systems in place and their key failings. Members of the Survivor Alliance spoke with authority, drawing from their own knowledge and experiences to reframe problems with policy and support mechanisms, as well as issues with the approach of researchers to the antislavery scholarship.

“The event was a really big step forward in possible understanding and collaboration between researchers and survivors.”

These presentations encouraged ECRs to reconsider the ways that they can ensure their own accountability to survivors, particularly with regard to making research transparent, available and accessible. Researchers were encouraged to integrate survivor perspectives into their work from the first stages of project design, formulating research questions that derive from survivors’ perspectives, and which respond to their needs. Being forthright about the nature of the research was also considered a key element of transparency – acknowledging the limits of research projects and being honest about the potential impact (or lack thereof) were considered fundamental.

Thematic Table Discussions

The remainder of the day focused on open dialogue between early career researchers and survivors, with table discussions inviting participants to rethink a range of themes and topics central to the field, many of which were drawn directly from the outcomes of a UK Survivor Town Hall, hosted two weeks prior by the Survivor Alliance.

KEY THEMES DISCUSSED:

  • Language and definitions
  • Representation in arts, media, and visual culture
  • Ethical interviewing
  • Criminal justice processes
  • Long-term recovery
  • Immediate assistance

By creating an informal environment in which knowledge was exchanged freely and equally, the workshop began the process of abolishing the barrier between academic and survivor communities. Survivors reflecting on the day highlighted the quality of interaction, the genuine and humble approach of researchers, and the sense that their voices were being heard and engaged with. The workshop was identified as a bonding experience, and a step towards the establishment of a more permanent community of survivors and researchers.

The importance of building trust and rapport was both highlighted and demonstrated throughout the day. As participants reflected on the importance of meaningful, continuing collaboration it became clear that the workshop was simply the first step in an ongoing process of integrating collaborative, co-productive, survivor-informed, and survivor-led research practices into future antislavery scholarship.

A Key Question

A fundamental question that arose during the workshop related to the structures of academic research and the ways in which these interfered with the evolution of approaches to ethical scholarship. Some participants expressed concern about the status quo of research, suggesting that the priorities and objectives of academic institutions might mitigate against a fully collaborative approach to research conducted with and by survivors.

Is academia ready for a fully-fledged, collaborative, co-productive, survivor-informed, and survivor-led approach to research?

Scholarship in the field of slavery and antislavery studies frequently relies upon and represents the experiences of survivors. Yet historically, this research has often failed to engage with, or even invisibilised, survivors themselves. This is true not only of research concerning contemporary forms of enslavement, but with consideration of historical enslavement too where such continues to impact on the lives of particular communities that are not necessarily engaged in the research project or design. The concern arising in the workshop was whether this was an inevitable consequence of the way that academic institutions and academic research are structured.

However, although there is a long road ahead, commitment to ethical scholarship in this area is increasing. As participants at the conclusion of the workshop reflected, ‘whether it is ready or not, we are doing it and it has to be’. Regardless of the systems in place, the commitment to doing something – to take on some form of impact in whatever way possible – was identified as vital. In other words, it is incumbent upon researchers to do what they can and not sit back in a system that benefits from survivors without ensuring a reciprocal benefit for them. We, as researchers, and the academy more generally, have a responsibility to make our work available to the people it concerns, and not to silence their voices in this process.

Despite the concerns expressed regarding the state of the field in a variety of areas, a sense of optimism infused the concluding discussions. The positive steps towards ethical and impactful scholarship already taking place in various contexts, and the awareness that today’s ECRs are tomorrow’s research leaders, gave participants hope for the future of antislavery research.

Outcomes

Throughout the day, we considered what diverse areas of research have to offer to survivors, how survivors’ perspectives can (and should) influence research, and the ways in which scholars and survivors can work together to produce and develop knowledge. As well as a newly emerging sense of community and collaboration between participants, the workshop opened the gateway for a series of practical outcomes and outputs.

These included:

  • Moving towards establishing a researcher training pathway for survivors, as an ongoing future collaboration for the Survivor Alliance and Antislavery ERA.
  • The establishment of a mentoring programme to support survivors wanting to engage in research, as well as for new researchers in the field.
  • The development of survivor-led guidelines for conducting interviews with survivors.
  • The production of a collaborative output concerning how to approach ethical interviewing.
  • The collaborative production of a worksheet for survivors on engaging with researchers and academics.
  • Working towards the production of accessible summaries of research in the field.
  • The development of a policy-focused action group within the Antislavery ERA to connect existing research specialties to impact activities.

Discussion throughout the day, and subsequent reflection, also highlighted key areas in which the Antislavery ERA might develop in the future, both as a Network serving early career researchers and as an association committed to ethical engagement in this field of research. Beyond the newly established website, participants highlighted the need for regular events, for the development of more specialised groupings within the Network, and for the representation of different areas and institutions in organisation and administration.

Key Challenges

Beyond the bigger question concerning the capacity of academia to support a survivor-informed and survivor-led approach to research, the Workshop highlighted a number of key challenges in fostering dialogue between academic and survivor communities. From an organisational and administrative perspective, the need to adapt traditional modes of engagement that dominate academia to meet the particular needs of survivors was clear. The Antislavery ERA and the Survivor Alliance worked closely in planning the event, committed to enabling participation and accessibility for survivors. Looking forward, we hope to be able to improve these practices to support researcher participants’ understanding of these processes.

The potential for the perspectives of survivors to be critical or distrustful of academics also has to be navigated – particularly where the distinction between individual researchers and the institution more generally become blurred. This is a key challenge for ethical scholarship moving forward, particularly for ECRs entering institutions over which they do not necessarily exercise much control in the early stages of their careers. We hope to continue developing along this path of engagement with the critique of the institutions that we occupy, in order to improve scholarship in the future.

Future Directions

While this event was focused on providing a space for dialogue between ECRs and survivor leaders and for the consideration of scholarship with survivors, several additional areas deserving of attention were identified throughout the day. The need to continue engaging with ‘vetaran’ or ‘established’ academics was highlighted, indicating that this remains an area of concern for both ECRs and survivors, and an area in which the Antislavery ERA will continue to seek to foster interaction. Further engagement with policy-makers and policy objectives was also encouraged as a future direction for the network.

SWS2There was also a clearly articulated need for further engagement on particular issues and themes, including considering the temporal focus of events to ensure that the network continues catering to research concerning both historical and contemporary enslavement. Events with a specific focus on particular industries and regions, problem-solving workshops, and a continuation of the engagement between survivors and ECRs are therefore all on the table for the Antislavery ERA.

Finally, as a network fundamentally concerned with fostering collaboration between ECRs, it was heartening to witness the desire amongst ECRs at the Workshop to continue building collaborative approaches to scholarship. This spirit of cooperation has infused every one of the Antislavery events having taken place over the past three years, and is a positive omen for the future of antislavery research.

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