Counter-Narratives to the Practice of ‘Dirty’ Research

Wynne, Joan T; Landorf, Hilary (2014). 'Counter-Narratives to the Practice of 'Dirty' Research' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

Maori  researcher Linda Tuhiwai Smith, in Decolonizing Methodologies: Research & Indigenous People (1999), suggests that sometimes when we frame research within a specific scientific or disciplinary approach, we forget that all of it, for indigenous people across the globe, is deeply embedded in complex and multiple layers of imperial and colonial practices (Smith 1-18). In Miami, we have experienced the same research biases reflected in many mainstream studies that seem stuck on discovering the deficits of students and families living in poverty. Deficit theory, Smith indicates, has created a sense in indigenous communities that research is a dirty word (p. 1).  At Florida International University (FIU), we are involved in several counter-narratives to that practice of 'dirty' research.

In this presentation, we will explore the work of three of these stories, each grounded in specific components of the human capabilities approach at the grassroots level and in the academy.  All three programs, The Algebra Project (AP), Global Learning for Global Citizenship (GLGC), and The Young People's Project (YPP), reflect the local and global engagement vision of FIU.

The work of AP and YPP relate specifically to one of Martha Nussbaum's core capabilities, the necessity of control over one's environment, the capacity to participate effectively in political choices that govern one's life; and to her insistence that upholding the dignity of a human being requires the freedom to construct a way of life in reciprocity with others, and not merely follow, or be shaped by others (2000).

Founder/president of the Algebra Project and U.S. Civil Rights icon, Bob Moses, insists that disenfranchised youth must demand their rights to sit at the table of democracy through developing a discipline for learning higher level mathematics, knowledge he claims is essential for poor people to survive in the 21st century age of technology (Moses and Cobb). 

Before he founded AP, during the early sixties Moses travelled the southern states of the U.S. to begin a dialogue with Black leaders on ways to support their work for liberation from the Jim Crow South.  From the discussions in Mississippi came the 'bottom up' campaign for voting rights for all Blacks in the south. Over forty years after those bloody battles and ultimate voting rights' victories, Moses returned to Mississippi to work with those insurgents' grandchildren, who were still being denied a quality education in the public schools there and across the nation (Moses & Cobb). 

To those children in 1991, Moses brought the Algebra Project, designing it as a tool to teach critical thinking skills to children stuck at the bottom of the delivery of bad education. He saw access to mathematics as the next civil right. To gain political power in the south, black citizens had to win their right to vote.  To win access to college and to economic security in a technology driven 21st century society, poor children need to become proficient in mathematics. Moses asserts that ''The absence of math literacy in urban and rural communities is as urgent an issue today as the lack of registered voters was 40 years ago.' He believes that solving the problem requires the same kind of community organizing that changed the South.  Moses also theorizes that 'If we can succeed in bringing all children to a level of math literacy so they can participate in today's economy, that would be a revolution'' (Mother Jones).

Within that context, an offspring of AP, The Young People's Project, became a youth-led movement of social change. The YPP organizers believe that young people can and must significantly alter their own lives as well as the moral life of the nation. They use 'math literacy work' within their communities as the vehicle to begin that journey of individual and societal change.  

Congruent with the human capabilities approach, YPP insists on being responsive to youth culture.  YPP is unafraid to integrate the music, the digital images and interests of the hip-hop culture into its curriculum and methodology to entice the young into the study of mathematics. AP's and YPP's work is a deliberate attempt to prove to the nation that all children, no matter how poor or how alienated from the society at large, can and will learn higher level mathematics, given the appropriate curriculum, pedagogy, support, and opportunity to be decision-makers within their own classrooms and communities.

But the insistence on accelerated learning for 'children at the bottom' is not the only radical philosophy and practice of AP and YPP in Miami and the nation. Inherent in their mission is a belief that only the students, once they are committed to actively pursue higher level mathematics and abstraction, can transform their schools and their world, a kind of 'earned insurgency'(PBS 2007, Wynne 2010).  Moses further insists that the only ones who can really demand the kind of education they need and the policy changes needed to get it are the students, their parents, and their community (Moses, 18-21).

Another radical idea in play at FIU is the work of the Global Learning for Global Citizenship initiative.  Driven by a human capabilities approach, this initiative is as insistent as Moses is in developing students as problem-solvers in classrooms and in their local and global communities. Through the recursive use of the dialogic process, stakeholders throughout the university developed student learning outcomes that expand upon Nussbaum's capabilities for democratic citizenship - global citizenship, critical thinking, and narrative imagination (2004) – by placing emphasis on students' agency as global citizens.  Undergirding the work of GLGC is its encouragement of students to challenge intellectual structures, definitions and assumptions that maintain cultural strife within local and global arenas.  GLGC promotes faculty, student, and community dialogue around issues of human rights, social justice, prejudice, privilege and power as they play out in both contexts. With ongoing professional development workshops that invite faculty and staff to experience content and pedagogies that keep students at the forefront of their own learning, GLGC has institutionalized the exploration of what it means to be a citizen of the world.

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