Laura Ruth Johnson travels to Taiwan to see community research in action

Laura Ruth Johnson
Laura Ruth Johnson

Some of the world’s greatest wisdom is stored only in the minds of people who’ve inherited this information from the generations that have come before them.

However, much traditional research overlooks this grassroots knowledge and expertise in favor of “scientific” knowledge gathered through empirical methods.

Fortunately, a growing group of universities and researchers, in the United States and across the world, are recognizing the importance of grassroots and local knowledge in addressing pressing issues and concerns.

For example, the Rukai, an indigenous people of Taiwan, possess grassroots-level knowledge about marine life in Gushan, including how best to protect the local waterways as well as time-tested fishing practices that are responsible and successful. Their understanding – their beliefs – of the earth can inform and possibly advance climate change research.

This was one of the projects that Laura Ruth Johnson, an associate professor in the NIU Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment and author of “Community-based Qualitative Research: Approaches for Education and the Social Sciences,” sought to learn about during a recent three-week research and teaching sabbatical at National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

To this end, she interviewed a faculty member and student involved in a collaborative project with the Rukai that has made important inroads with the community, enough so that a major museum exhibition will open next year to highlight their marine knowledge.

Laura Ruth Johnson at National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung, Taiwan
Laura Ruth Johnson (right) with Chuang Hsueh-Hua, director of the Institute for Education of National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

But despite the strong relationships developed with this group, they remain guarded, perhaps an instinctive reaction to the ostracism and discrimination they’ve experienced throughout their history.

“This faculty member has been developing these relationships over many years,” Johnson says. “She’s been willing to show that she’s interested in their knowledge – and that she’s humble.”

Johnson did not visit the Rukai with her new associate, who continues to nurture the relationship: “That would be intrusive. Marginalized communities long exploited by universities are rightfully distrustful of outsiders. These relationships take years to build, and are constantly negotiated.”

However, she will return to NIU from her sabbatical with different ways to better integrate students into community-based research, ideas on forging stronger university-community bonds, plans to write a book that combines those two concepts and thoughts about having her earlier book translated into Chinese.

“I’m interested in looking at models of community-based research as well as what we can learn from these models regarding what students and communities learn and gain from this form of research.”

Long known for her own research work in Chicago’s Humboldt Park community, where she examines community engagement, mentorship and advocacy among pregnant and parenting youth, and includes NIU students in the process, Johnson led three qualitative research workshops and delivered one keynote address in Taiwan.

She also talked to students and faculty about their work, and met with associates of the university’s Social Engagement Center (SEC).

The SEC encourages National Sun Yat-sen faculty to include community-based research in their scholarly agenda, although it’s a challenge: “Like many universities, they still have a very narrow view of what counts for tenure,” Johnson says. “It’s very quantitative-based.”

National Sun Yat-sen students, however, take great advantage of SEC opportunities for experiential learning off campus. Community and civic engagement are also a recent focus of Taiwan’s national K-12 curriculum.

“It gave me different ideas about how to get students involved in community research projects, and in sustained ways,” Johnson says.

“For example, the SEC has funding for students to work with local elders who build boats used for fishing. There are no blueprints – it’s just all in their heads,” she adds, “and one of the projects has these students interviewing the elders about it while engineering students are working with elders to draw blueprints.”

Kaohsiung Harbor
Kaohsiung Harbor

Other students are learning the history of the communities surrounding Kaohsiung and leading guided tours for members of the university community, she says.

Those interactions and discussions continue to inform how she regards and might promote the value of the work she practices and teaches to future researchers.

“Some of National Sun Yat-sen’s innovative and creative dissemination efforts, such as art exhibits and installations, and the focus on supporting existing community spaces and assisting in the creation of new ones, helped me think a bit more about how to share findings from community-engaged studies,” she says.

And with her even clearer vision that “universities need to be involved in recovering or documenting the knowledge of elders and repairing often fraught and inequitable relationships with communities,” Johnson plans now to advocate for more resources for formalizing relationships in the NIU community that could produce similar outcomes and lead to more engaged scholarship.

She also is looking forward to a return trip to Puerto Rico to observe the current status or results of Chicago-borne projects to help support community-based efforts to rebuild areas ravaged by Hurricane Maria.

Paichi-Pat Shein (right) is the researcher making valuable connections with the Rukai.
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