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Episode 10: Navigating Positionality and Power
[00:00:00] Emma Blomkamp: It’s good to have good principles. It’s good to use some useful tools. But actually, who is it and who’s leading the work and what do you bring to it? So, whoever you are as a practitioner or facilitator, the knowledge, the identity, the biases that we all have, like how is that shaping the work?
[00:00:25] Nicole Deen: That was Emma Blomkamp, one of our guests, describing the concept of positionality, our topic for today’s episode of Collaboratory. My name is Nicole Deen, and today we’re going to explore this idea of positionality with four guests who will share how they have recognised and navigated their various positions and power dynamics in relation to the co-creative work they do across various sectors, including social policy, academic research, and cultural institutions.
As someone whose work involves collaborating with others, most often who are different to me in many ways, I’ve become more and more conscious of the influence, my background, values, experiences, and preferences have on the people I work with, the processes I follow, and what comes out of them. I now know that these reflections relate to these concepts of positionality and power and that there are no easy answers when it comes to how to deal with them.
While this episode won’t share the magic bullet on dealing with power and positionality, we do hope that the insights and experiences our guests share will shine some light on questions you may or may not have asked yourselves already and point to some ways that we can all begin to reflect on how we may be more intentional about how we work co-creatively with others.
But before we introduce our guests, in the spirit of practicing what we preach, I thought I’d share a little of who I am and how I’m placed in this work I’m doing with Collaboratory. I’m a cisgender, white Australian woman, born on Yuin Country in New South Wales, and now living and working on Ngunnawal, Ngunawal, and Ngambri country in Canberra, in the Australian Capital Territory.
I’m married with one child, university educated and have been fortunate enough to spend much of the past 25 years living in a variety of countries around the world. I’ve worked in international and community development for nearly 20 years, starting off in Ecuador as a volunteer with a local community association and then working with and for local and international non-profit organisations in South and Southeast Asia, the Pacific, and now back in Australia.
In terms of co-creativity, I’ve had all sorts of experiences and recently it’s primarily been as a facilitator of collaborative processes. I work mostly as a freelance consultant and run my own consulting business, although I am receiving a wage from the university for the work I do on Collaboratory.
All this to say, I come with many privileges and experiences that have both shaped my view of the world and influence how I see and interact with others and how they see and interact with. So now I’ve let you in on a little bit more about me. Let’s hear from some of our guests in this episode.
[00:03:09] Kaira Zoe Cañete: My name is Kaira Zoe Cañete. In terms of work, I am a researcher, and development practitioner, and I mainly focus on the intersections of gender, development and disasters. I am at the moment, a post-doctoral research fellow at the International Institute of Social Studies at Erasmus University of Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
So I was born and raised in the Philippines, so it’s considered one of the most disaster prone countries in the world and I’ve lived for many years in less affluent neighbourhoods in my home city of Cebu. Now, although calamities, such as those brought about by typhoons, floods, earthquakes, and so on form a part of the backdrop of life in the Philippines, it was actually not initially central to my own work.
[00:03:59] Nicole Deen: Emma Blomkamp is a strategic designer and co-design coach based in Melbourne, Australia.
[00:04:05] Emma Blomkamp: I don’t even have a job title I use consistently. I sometimes describe myself as a facilitator and researcher. Sometimes, I will actually describe myself as a co-design coach. That’s probably the main thing I’m doing for work, but usually any of those things need some explanation. I mainly work independently these days, delivering training and coaching in the practice of co-design to people in the public purpose sector.
[00:04:34] Nicole Deen: A little later in the show, we’ll also hear from Shona Coyne and Jilda Andrews, who both work in the cultural sector in Australia. But before we jump into talking with others, I want to take a step back and explore a little of what is meant by this word positionality.
According to Dictionary.com, positionality is the social and political context that creates your identity in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability status. Positionality also describes how your identity influences and potentially biases your understanding of an outlook on the world. The University of British Columbia put it this way – Positionality refers to how differences in social position and power shape identities and access in society.
Critical designer Lesley-Ann Noel encourages us to see positionality as a practice in which we delineate our own position in relation to the context we’re working in. In her Designer’s Critical Alphabet, she asks us to consider how positionality affects how we approach a specific task or problem. In any co-creative endeavour, how we participate is always partially shaped by the experiences and influences that have shaped us. Whether we like it or not, we carry into our work with others, our backgrounds, our assumptions and biases, our personal, cultural and disciplinary ways of perceiving a particular context or task. Our positionality can influence the roles we play in co-creation, how we view and engage with others, how we perceive and share power in the process, as well as the ideas or actions we contribute to a particular collaboration.
In short, it underpins everything we do. So, what does it take to recognize our positionality when embarking on co-creative initiatives? What difference can it make to both the process and the outcomes that arise. As a researcher, these are questions that Kaira Zoe Cañete has thought a lot about, especially when she was co-creating her PhD research with women in post-disaster settings in the Philippines.
[00:06:42] Kaira Zoe Cañete: I really appreciate these questions, talking about the researcher background because it’s something we often take for granted. You know, we don’t just go into our research sites or develop our research questions as if we don’t have our own assumptions and biases and backgrounds that we put into that process.
So I think that’s also very important to be able to navigate power relations as well because we tend to assume that since we are collaborating with people that, you know, you are all equal. But there are certain positions and backgrounds that shape the power dynamics of that relationship. And if you’re not aware of it, uh, you can actually undermine the very basis for that collaboration.
I think that’s also a key first step to really developing engaged relationships with your partners, because if you don’t recognise where you’re coming from, what backgrounds you have, then there’s already that barrier to spaces that you could, uh, potentially open through engagement. The very first thing that I did before I even like finalised my research proposal was actually to write about why I was interested in this particular topic, what were my experiences that sort of shaped me towards that direction. Because then, I would be aware as to what is motivating me to pursue these, uh, lines of inquiry that I have, uh, laid out. So definitely I think positionality, especially in feminist research is really, acknowledging one’s positionality, is really quite central to the ethical and political project of feminist inquiry.
[00:08:20] Nicole Deen: Kaira’s research involved using a photo-based method called PhotoKwento, which involved women taking photos related to research questions, and then sharing those with other women in an interview tool to elicit further storytelling and sharing of their experiences in a post-disaster community in the Philippines.
For a more in depth understanding of this co-created research practice, have a listen to our Collaboratory Conversation episode with Kaira. Throughout her research process, Kaira was acutely aware of how her position as researcher gave her implicit power in the process.
[00:08:54] Kaira Zoe Cañete: As researchers, we might not be too conscious that the moment that we even identify our research questions, that is already power, right? Because you’re already setting the parameters of what is valued and what is not valued, and what should be looked into in more detail. The kind of questions that you ask is also an exercise of power. And even how you interpret your data is all about power. And so, in this sense, I wanted to bring in study participants in terms of sharing the research process. Not just as something that I dictate, but it’s something that they actually have influence and control over.
So, for example, the decision to let study participants decide on the photographs that they want to take was already a shift in that power because they decided what was relevant or not. To be able to discuss these among themselves and to decide which ones should go into the research and should be part of the interview without me saying that, okay, this should be the way to go. So, I think that’s a way to share power as well.
And to give them a space to even criticize me. There are some researchers who are, you know, hesitant to do that because there’s also that idea that who knows more in this particular context. So, to allow your participants to also criticize your work is actually for me, a step in the right direction that we are not all knowing as researchers.
[00:10:37] Nicole Deen: Whether we are working in a research setting or engaging with people in other co-creative initiatives, recognizing our positionality up front can help us to identify possible blind spots, assess our roles in a process, and if we should continue them. As a strategic designer working in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Australia, Emma Blomkamp has had to come face to face with her own position and power on a variety of occasions.
[00:11:01] Emma Blomkamp: One of the situations I found myself in earlier in my career was, for instance, being on a project where I was part of a team delivering training to health organizations, and I got sent to deliver one of these training sessions to an Indigenous health organization, and that organization had not asked for this training in design for social innovation.
They did not see how it was relevant to their work. And I simply represented the latest line of white colonization of their practice that failed to recognize the very rich knowledge and relationships that they had, that there was an assumption that something must be lacking, that they must need to learn this Western practice of design for social innovation.
And that was a really awkward and difficult situation for me to be in. And I realized then that it didn’t matter, even though I was trying my best to approach things in a humble and relational way, it didn’t matter what I did because of what I represented as a white person working for a consultancy employed by a government agency, and that was an eye-opening moment for me.
At the same time in the same agency, we also had great practices in working with community-based researchers where we did often recognise our positionality. And for instance, I was working on a project that was around young drivers in a predominantly Pacific and Maori community in Auckland. And I knew that I was not the right person to be going out and, and doing interviews with, say, young Samoan men and asking about what essentially is illegal behaviour and expecting them to be upfront and honest with me right away. And so in projects like that, we would often work with, for various reasons, but that being one of the reasons we would work with community researchers or peer researchers whose positionality made them able to create environments of safety and trust and also really help to understand and interpret and help us interpret what participants were sharing in terms of their experiences and opinions.
All of that has made me quite aware of positionality in this work. And one of the things I found particularly awkward in Australia is that sometimes I’ve been approached to provide advice on co-design with Aboriginal communities. I am not even an Australian, and I am definitely a white settler, and I do not think I am the right person to be providing advice on how to work with Aboriginal communities.
There are also some fantastic Aboriginal co-design practitioners in Australia. So, one of the things I do when people approach me for work is think is this work I would like to do? But there’s also a question of am I the right person to do this? And if not, who might be. And so sometimes one of the ways I can help is by putting someone in touch with someone who I think might be better suited to lead that work, who actually might identify as being from that community.
[00:14:05] Nicole Deen: I really like Emma’s reflections on how our positions can influence the roles we have in co-creative practices, but if we are coming from a very different place or context to those we’re co-creating with, does it mean we shouldn’t be involved at all? Sometimes, distinctions between insiders and outsiders can serve potentially useful functions in a co-creative process, facilitating access to different kinds of knowledge or ways of understanding things.
Equally, these categories of insider and outsider are not black and white. Part of the practice of facilitating learning between different knowledges and perspectives can involve coming face to face with our own assumptions of how much is appropriate to share of ourselves and what constitutes professionalism.
Whilst I didn’t have the language for it at the time, I clearly remember considering my role in this way when I worked with women in peri-urban communities in the Philippines. I recognised that whilst I was able to bring in some new ideas and perspectives to the project, as an outsider, I would never be able to understand the deep layers of context and local relations that ultimately made or broke the success of the project. Rather, I found that my role was to support my local colleagues to implement the project in a way that was responsive to those existing relationships and context and do things in a way that would be genuinely embraced and owned.
[00:15:24] Emma Blomkamp: Having a fresh perspective, having someone who can bring real, genuine curiosity is incredibly valuable. So, not knowing a community sometimes is, okay, can be okay if you’re approaching it in the right way, whereas at other times you might really need some existing relationships to get some work done. So, that’s an interesting value add of the outsider perspective. The interesting thing I also found though, is in reflecting on a lot of the work that I did in the first few years working in co-design for social innovation, I actually often did have a personal connection with the issues we were looking at, but I didn’t always acknowledge that. I had come from an academic background where I think that idea of objectivity is really valued and encouraged. And I suppose I was trying to be an objective or neutral facilitator, and I think perhaps it would’ve been more honest to state my connection and position.
But I’d come from a background where that wasn’t recognized as a valid form of expertise. The fact that I, myself had driven without a license as a teenager and I wasn’t sure how to appropriately say that when I’m meant to be here, the professional leading the project, working for the government. I think things are really different now, like this is maybe about 10 years ago, I’m talking about. And I think now there is a real value of lived expertise and I think that’s great. But, I think there is a risk when you do have a strong connection to an issue, of perhaps not being able to see some other perspectives, or understand how it might be different for someone who’s had a really different experience from you, which I think this starts to point to the importance of facilitation because I think it’s really important to include insider and outsider perspectives and a process. I think what’s important is that you’ve got a facilitator who can help bring them together and not value one too highly so that the other one isn’t counted.
[00:17:37] Nicole Deen: The work of facilitating across differences of helping to bring, understanding and even balance between multiple perspectives, ways of knowing and being requires dwelling in the in between spaces. My co-host Maya has spoken of this as ‘bridge work’, where through our positions as facilitators, we can help to build bridges across divide of difference and assist in moving things across through deeper relationships or processes of translation.
This is the work of navigating middle spaces, and it’s in these spaces that the new possibilities of co-creativity usually arise. Our other two guests in this episode describe themselves as being in this middle ground in the work they do mediating between cultural institutions and the communities they seek to engage with.
[00:18:25] Shona Coyne: My name’s Shona Coyne. I’m a Menang Noongar Yorga, so an Aboriginal woman from Albany in Western Australia, so living over here on Ngunnawal, Ngunawal, Ngambri country, and I work at the National Museum of Australia and wear a lot of hats there at the moment. Everything from curatorial to repatriation work.
[00:18:48] Jilda Andrews: So my name is Jilda Andrews. I’m a Simpson. My family are from Walgett and Lightning Ridge, Angledool and that general region of Northwestern New South Wales. We are Yuwaalaraay people, and I live and work with my family here in Canberra, Ngunnawal Ngambri, Ngunawal, country. I’m a research fellow at the ANU and also at the National Museum of Australia. So I’m interested in collections, I’m interested in ethnographic collections particularly, and interpretation of ethnographic collections in Australian museums.
So, I recognized myself as a middle ground person because I felt like I could see both sides. And, you know, there’s a real shame in that really, because what that says is that my experience of culture work has been simplified into being two sides. A black and a white. So, for a long time I thought, oh, I’m in between that. Also, because my mother’s non-indigenous and I’m really proud of my identity and I’m often trying to kind of resist the simplified kind of black and white narrative, and that’s a really hard thing to do. So I’ve used my energy instead to actually just position myself in between and then mediate or translate or do this other work that can see both sides and bring them together in a way that’s, you know, less combative or, you know, that’s, that’s actually foregrounded on understanding rather than oppositional relationships because there’s so much energy spent in combat and you run out of that energy really quickly.
So being a middle ground person is about, understanding positionality in a much more general sense. It doesn’t have to be black or white. It could be all the shades in between. But spending time to also understanding the space. That middle ground is what it looks like, how it feels, what it can host, and that can be a really creative space. So that’s what I really love about it, because it doesn’t belong to either side. It’s made up and it’s informed by lots of different things, and it could be different from Monday to Tuesday, and that’s okay. It is just responsive and there. So the middle can be a really, really wide open, creative space, and I just prefer to be in that kind of space.
[00:21:27] Shona Coyne: Particularly when Jilda’s talking about that creative space, when you are playing that almost mediator role, you are looking at the aspirations of, say, the museum versus community and then finding the way to the shared vision, which is gonna be really beneficial for both parties. And when that happens, that’s a really beautiful thing to be a part of and really quite rewarding for everybody, for me, for community, for museum, and bringing those things together. It’s understanding what this group wants and versus what this group wants and finding that middle ground, and that’s exciting.
[00:22:07] Nicole Deen: For those of us who haven’t worked in a national museum, what might this kind of work look like?
[00:22:13] Shona Coyne: A couple of years ago, I did an exhibition, and we were working with community groups about a particular arts project, actually, and it was in response to some very old journals. And there was a desire from the museum for a particular outcome. And I said, let’s just put that on hold and let’s just go and share the journals with the community first, and we’ll just read through ’em. We’ll just sit down. I’ll read them out. We’ll have a yarn about them, and then we’ll see what comes out of that.
And so, after we read through these journals, it was actually Cook’s journals from 1770. The artists that we were talking to really began to just riff off them and start to dream up these beautiful stories and actually stories of past, present, future, and create these incredible artworks. And it wasn’t driven by the museum saying, this is what it has to be. It was through their own vision and aspirations that they created these pieces, and the museum was delighted. That was the output. But you know, for me to kind of put the museum to just say, hang on a minute, before you start projecting what you want to come out of this, let’s just go to community first and see. Because they have all the answers. And actually, it’s probably a better idea than what you had in the first place. Often.
[00:23:42] Nicole Deen: Framing this as middle ground work in the way that Jilda and Shona have done creates an invitation to an as yet unfilled shared space where all parties can choose to enter and then see what happens rather than having a detailed, brief, and pre-established plan, which others are commissioned to fulfil.
[00:24:00] Jilda Andrews: I think in that example, what’s also happening is this kind of request to just unpick our assumptions to then start the conversation from a different point. So the assumptions that Cook’s journals were that and that community would have a particular reaction to them, or that the community response will be in opposition to them.
Some way again, you know, combative or, or just not gelling with, or that these two kinds of forms of knowledge don’t intersect. I think the underlying assumption that that is the case, I think if you start unpicking that, then you give permission for both parties to start the conversation from a different perspective and then.
You enable the chance of surprise, and that’s when new knowledge is created. That’s when new relationships are created, and that’s when new positions in relation to that moment of our history get to evolve. So, you know, we’re thinking and talking about this middle ground as a kind of, flat space, but let’s give it a bit of depth and height.
Let’s turn it into a 3D space. Let’s think of different positions within that space being able to occur in vastly, wildly different planes. Because I think when we’re talking about two different worldviews coming into and multiple worldviews, more than two, coming into dialogue with one another, I think you have to be really careful. Being able to host a space that can be cognizant of the vastly different positionalities and even concepts of positionality that might be occurring.
[00:25:43] Shona Coyne: Mm-hm, and actually even leading on from that project, when we went to a different community, what was almost shocking in some ways for the museum to hear was that some communities didn’t care a jot about Captain Cook or this project, and in their minds they were like, really? They don’t have something they want to say about this incredible voyage, and I really had to say yes. It’s actually not at the forefront of their minds at the moment. Surviving, getting a job, finding employment, putting food on the table is more important than thinking about these projects that we are bringing to community and actually having to express that in a way that the museum understood that this is one group that don’t want to engage with this particular story and respecting that was my role to play in that communicative mediator role.
[00:26:45] Nicole Deen: What Shona has shared highlights some of the challenges people can face in positions of mediator, middle ground person, broker, or facilitator, especially when representing a typically more powerful institution such as a funder, university or in Shona’s case, national museum.
In these situations, practitioners are often walking a tight rope of the expectations of the community they’re co-creating with on one side, and those of the institution they represent on the other, which can be a heavy weight to carry.
[00:27:15] Jilda Andrews: It’s a heavy weight and it’s made heavier by the fact that we choose to work in these spaces. So, it’s not something that’s been foisted upon us. We’ve chosen to do this work, so the weight’s also our own. We’re bearing our own expectations as well. So, it’s difficult then when you go into these moments of reflection about why something perhaps didn’t work or how things could have been done better, you know, you, you really beat yourself up because you think, you know, no, I really wanted this to work.
I could really see a role for myself here, and it just didn’t happen. And that’s hard because you’re also having to maintain a face outwards that, yeah, I am competent and I am the best person for the job, but you’re just always having to reckon with that other pressure that we put on ourselves to perform this work.
[00:28:07] Nicole Deen: Reflection, as Jilda has spoken about, has been shared by many of our guests as an essential practice to help us consider what worked in a co-creative process and also what influenced our role and position had on what happened. It can also help to keep us on track and true to why we’re working in this way in the first place. Shona Coyne.
[00:28:27] Shona Coyne: You can question yourself at those moments and think, did I do everything right? Did I really express myself really clearly? Did I understand the community that I was going into and the, the vision of the museum and bringing those two together. So, I remember specifically having moments of real deep reflection at those moments and actually community really communicated clearly that they weren’t ready for that just at that time. So I took comfort in that, but I’ve always remembered that since that time to just keep in mind that it is not the priority of communities that I’m working with this project. And it sounds so simple.
It sounds really obvious, but sometimes you forget cause you’re out there with this enthusiasm. It’s a great project. Maybe there’s money involved, but actually that’s not the priority for the community. I see myself as trying to role model. What I think is good and best practice, I don’t get it right all the time, and that’s okay.
And as Jilda says to those moments where you mess up or get things wrong, they’re the best learning lessons ever. But what I would like to see, is for these words that we use to have deeper meaning and for it to not just be a, almost like a plugin, because that’s what I often see happens is that we look at doing projects or we think we have these wonderful outputs that are gonna happen, but we don’t build into these projects.
This co-creation from the very, very beginning, and it’s a plugin and when you plug it in towards the end or halfway through, you get this disjoint. And that’s where I’m often asked to come in and play that mediator role. That can mean a lot, even personally and Jilda I have talked about what that means to be often asked to fix that hole, that gap that’s missing.
And it’s frustrating after a while when you think, come on, we’ve done this stuff before. We should have been talking about this a long time ago in terms of this collaboration kind of work. And I think that’s where First Nations people get really fatigued and tire. And feel exhausted in working in institutions that don’t support really meaningful collaborations.
[00:31:08] Nicole Deen: Stay tuned for an upcoming episode of Collaborative Conversations where we’ll dive deeper with Jilda and Shona about what it means for them to navigate community engagement and cultural work as First Nations practitioners in Australia. But for now, as we come to the end of this episode, how might we all start to better recognize and reflect on our position when we’re working co creatively with others?
Here’s Emma Blomkamp.
[00:31:32] Emma Blomkamp: What we are starting to see these days is more of a need for the facilitator to recognize their positionality. To say, oh, I think I’m being inclusive here, but I actually did have this experience, and that might be shaping me. And that means being able to check in with other people who can sometimes see our blind spots or biases in ways that we cannot.
And so actually being able to have reflective conversations about how things are going with others. And being really open to feedback, especially if there’s a risk that you might be leading a group in a certain way as a facilitator, like being open to, to that being pointed out to you. Being able to adapt I think is really important.
[00:32:12] Nicole Deen: And although techniques like peer learning and reflection can help us to understand the impacts of positionality on our practice, our deeper world views and mindsets will always lay foundations for how we approach our roles and co-creative work. As our final word in the episode, here is Jilda Andrews sharing her perspective as a First Nations person on important orientations that better enable co-creativity and work in the middle ground.
[00:32:37] Jilda Andrews: The really important factor in this is whether you understand yourself already as part of a majestic collective, and we know we are. That is our starting point. We are of Country and our different versions of that. And so, if you start from that, then you expect to enrich and strengthen that. It’s not a matter of I’m a individual and I have to create a network around me. So even that difference in where you think you start from and where you operate from, that’s our power too. That’s our superpower.
[00:33:37] Maya Haviland: This episode of Collaboratory was written and edited by Maya Haviland and Nicole Deen. Series producer Maya Haviland. Audio Engineering by Nick McCorriston. Music made, especially for us by Seprock. Additional research and production support by Yichen Li.
Collaboratory is produced on the lands of the Ngunnawal, Ngambri, and Ngunawal people. We pay our respects and ongoing gratitude to the custodians past, present, and future of the lands on which we work and of the knowledges from which we learn.
Collaboratory is a production of the Scaffolding Cultural Co-Creativity Project hosted by the Centre for Heritage and Museum Studies in the College of Arts and Social Sciences at the Australian National University. Funding is generously provided by the Australian National University Translational Fellowship scheme.