Tania Lizarazo in front of a teal wall

 

What does it mean to value storytelling as a form of knowledge production? How can we develop collaborative research projects with the communities to which we are accountable? What transformative avenues emerge when we ask what people need rather than making assumptions?

In episode 91 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach talks with professor Tania Lizarazo about how digital storytelling lets her build transnational community and accountability in deeply local spaces, the very different process of doing collaborative research that actively enriches the lives of everyone involved (not just the lives of scholars in the academy), and why being willing to listen and learn together in public is how Tania imagines otherwise.

Guest: Tania Lizarazo

Tania Lizarazo is an assistant professor in the Department of Modern Languages, Linguistics & Intercultural Communication and the Global Studies Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her interdisciplinary research and teaching challenge writing as the center of knowledge production and explores collaborative methodologies.

Her digital storytelling projects include Mujeres Pacíficas, a collaboration with Afro-Colombian women activists; Sexualidades Campesinas, a collaboration with LGBTQ members of farm working communities in California’s Central Valley (with Elisa Oceguera, David Tenorio, Diana Pardo Pedraza and Robert McKee Irwin); and three collaborations with immigrants in Baltimore: Moving Stories: Latinas in Baltimore; Intercultural Tales: Learning with Baltimore’s Immigrant Communities (with Thania Muñoz Davaslioglu); and Honest Conversations: Faith Community Dialogues on Immigration and Race (with Felipe Filomeno).

Her book manuscript Postconflict Utopias: Performing Everyday Survival in Colombia draws upon the digital stories from Mujeres Pacíficas and storytellers’ local, regional, and transnational networks to define survival as a series of everyday practices—from showing up to care-taking. As rehearsals of peace-building, these stories and practices exemplify the embodied knowledge that makes survival and imagining peace possible.

We chatted about

  • Storytelling as knowledge production (02:03)
  • The challenges of building collaborative research processes (04:00)
  • Tania’s book manuscript Postconflict Utopias: Performing Everyday Survival in Colombia (07:57)
  • Tania’s community-engaged teaching and scholarship in Baltimore (11:04)
  • The importance of specificity and listening to what people need (13:21)
  • Imagining otherwise (14:43)

Tania Lizarazo in front of a teal wall. Text reads: In everyday communication, we don't assume that we know what people want—we just ask. And I think that is something that we need to start doing in research and teaching a little bit more. Just ask and have a conversation about what we could do together.

Takeaways

Troubling the boundaries of knowledge production

Academic knowledge tends to be centered historically around writing and that usually means that it excludes everyone who historically hasn’t had access to traditional publishing outlets….Including other types of knowledge is not only about including racial, ethnic, or sexual minorities but about questioning what counts as knowledge and who counts as a knowledge producer. So I feel that storytelling, because it’s part of our everyday, is less intimidating for people not only to produce but also to consume. If we value storytelling as knowledge and knowledge production, we are making space to value other types of knowledge, which includes everyday skills and embodied knowledge.

Facilitation and digital storytelling as method

In terms of digital storytelling…the tradition that I was trained in involves a fast-paced training that usually takes place during a weekend where storytellers learn about what makes a good story, but they also learn about how to use tools to produce their own stories. But that has never worked with the types of communities that I have been working with. One of the examples is Sexualidades Campesinas, where we were trying to work with LGBTQ farm workers in the Central Valley of California. After months of trying to recruit participants, we realized that there’s not a place where we could actually go and find this community. Part of the challenge is recognizing that communities are abstract and they’re created by people getting together. Facilitating is also about creating spaces for people and creating spaces for storytelling. The type of methodology that I use is a slow-paced collaboration that entails working around storytellers’ schedules and listening to their requests and interests more than thinking about a traditional scholarship timeline in which you are supposed to be publishing all the time.

Going beyond trauma narratives in Colombia

I was really interested in trauma, in the violence, which is what we associate usually with Colombia. But what I realized working with farm workers was that there were a lot of things that were going on that I had not read in the books that I was reading in my classes. I started thinking about how we can move beyond trauma and move beyond victimhood when we’re trying to understand what makes life possible in spaces that are very violent—not only in terms of the armed conflict, but also in terms of capitalism and extraction and other types of things are going on in the Colombian Pacific….Survival is an everyday process. It’s not accidental like we usually think about, but it’s a performative practice that requires petition, rehearsal, and a lot, a lot of energy.

Destabilizing the university/community binary

A lot of our students are second-generation immigrants or first-generation immigrants themselves….The university and the community are not necessarily separated even as university and community collaborations sometimes reproduce this binary. We need to realize that students are the community. I think that part of the reason why that happens is because in universities, a lot of us have to move and leave our communities behind. This creates the idea that everyone is completely separated and disconnected.

Imagining otherwise

I want a world where people are encouraged to tell their stories and where others are willing to listen. I think that it’s important that we’re willing to learn together in public and we can imagine together other ways to do the same kind of things that we have been trained to do.

 

More from Tania Lizarazo

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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Episode transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

[00:22] This is episode 91 and my guest today is Tania Lizarazo.

Tania is an assistant professor in the Department of Modern Languages, Linguistics & Intercultural Communication and the Global Studies Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her interdisciplinary research and teaching challenge writing as the center of knowledge production and explores collaborative methodologies.

Her digital storytelling projects include Mujeres Pacíficas, a collaboration with Afro-Colombian women activists; Sexualidades Campesinas, a collaboration with LGBTQ members of farm working communities in California’s Central Valley; and three collaborations with immigrants in Baltimore: Moving Stories: Latinas in Baltimore, Intercultural Tales: Learning with Baltimore’s Immigrant Communities, and Honest Conversations: Faith Community Dialogues on Immigration and Race.

Her book manuscript Postconflict Utopias: Performing Everyday Survival in Colombia draws upon the digital stories from Mujeres Pacíficas and storytellers’ local, regional, and transnational networks to define survival as a series of everyday practices—from showing up to care-taking. As rehearsals of peace-building, these stories and practices exemplify the embodied knowledge that makes survival and imagining peace possible.

[01:37] In our interview, Tania and I discuss how digital storytelling lets her build transnational community and accountability in deeply local spaces, the very different process of doing collaborative research that actively enriches the lives of everyone involved (not just the lives of scholars in the academy), and why being willing to listen and learn together in public is how Tania imagines otherwise.

[To Tania] Thanks so much for being with us today.

Tania Lizarazo: Thank you, Cathy.

Cathy: Your work focuses on one of the world’s oldest and one might say universal forms of performance, which is storytelling. You focus in particular on intercultural storytelling in the classroom and in the field, which for you is California, Colombia, and more recently Baltimore, Maryland. I’m curious, what draws you to that particular way of engaging with people’s life narratives?

Tania [02:26]: Sure. I think that the the basic items are that is related like to my own interest in building communities where I work and where I live. I feel that when you have a community, it’s easier to find like a way to be accountable to people. And I think that is important when you’re trying to work with people.

I also think that academic knowledge tends to be centered historically around writing and that usually means that it excludes everyone who historically hasn’t had access to traditional publishing outlets that involve writing. I also think that including other types of knowledge is not only about including racial, ethnic, or sexual minorities but about questioning what counts as knowledge and also of course who counts as a knowledge producer.

So I feel that storytelling, because it’s part of our everyday, it’s less intimidating for people not only to produce but also to consume. If we value storytelling as knowledge and knowledge production, we are making space to value other types of knowledge, which include everyday skills and embodied knowledge, which are not transmitted through writing.

If we listen to personal stories then we make space for difference, for disagreement, and it’s more difficult to reproduce stereotypes. I feel that if we listen to other people’s stories, we learn and it’s easier to feel connected and to create connections with other people.

Cathy [04:01]: So much of the work that you do is collaborative. You work with a whole bunch of different groups on different projects, which I want to get into more specifically in a minute, but I want to pause here with this idea of collaboration. You talk a lot about adapting the concept of a story circle or facilitator participation and that dynamic between researcher and the folks being interviewed or being studied—kind of breaking down that binary. What got you interested in that kind of collaborative research process? Have you found that there are particular challenges to that type of collaboration?

Tania [04:39]: Yeah. Writing solo-authored pieces or doing research that doesn’t involve other people can be very isolating. As I said, I like to be around people. So of course that’s related to that. But I also feel that the audience for traditional scholarship is limited. One of my main motivations to create other types of outcomes has been always related to being able to share the products of research with the people that I’m talking to and I’m working with.

In terms of digital storytelling, I think that because the tradition that I was trained in involves a fast-paced training that usually takes place during a weekend where storytellers learn about what makes a good story, but they also learn about how to use tools to produce their own stories. But that has never worked with the types of communities that I have been working with.

[05:40] One of the examples is Sexualidades Campesinas, where we were trying to work with LGBTQ farm workers in the Central Valley of California. After months of trying to recruit participants, we realize that there’s not a place where we could actually go and find this community. Part of the challenges is recognizing that communities are abstract and they’re created by people getting together.

Facilitating is also about creating spaces for people and creating spaces for storytelling. The type of methodology that I use or the process that I like is a slow-paced collaboration that entails working around storytellers’ schedules and listening to their requests and interests more than thinking about a traditional scholarship timeline in which you are supposed to be publishing all the time.

Cathy [06:42]: I’m curious about some of the strategies that you used in the project that you mentioned in the Central Valley. Did you find that you had to readjust your research schedule or expectations? How did that play out on the ground for you and your collaborators?

Tania [06:58]: We were a group of more than six facilitators and we had to work around everyone’s schedule. So some of our storytellers were actually still working in farm working and sometimes they had very full schedules specifically depending on the seasons because this is seasonal work, of course. What we needed to do was negotiate every week when we could meet.

Most of the time, this idea of people wanting to learn about how to edit their own stories was not the case. Most people wanted us to edit their stories and then supervise the outcome and maybe work in selecting the images or giving us feedback about the final product, not as much in learning how to use technology.

Cathy [07:57]: It’s really fascinating and it’s a very different model of doing research, which is the point. I know you’ve done a lot of research and collaboration in postconflict Colombia and you’re working on a book about this. I’d love to talk a little bit about that project. What are what are you looking at in postconflict Colombia and how are you navigating the collaborative process through that work?

Tania [08:20]: I started working in Chocó, which is on the Colombian Pacific, in 2008. At the time, I was working on my master’s thesis and I was also working for an environmentalist NGO [non-governmental organization]. I was really interested in trauma, in the violence, which is what we associate usually with Colombia. But what I realized working with farm workers was that there were a lot of things that were going on that I had not read in the books that I was reading in my classes.

I started thinking about how we can move beyond trauma and move beyond victimhood when we’re trying to understand what makes life possible in spaces that are very violent—not only in terms of the armed conflict, but also in terms of capitalism and extraction and other types of things are going on in the Colombian Pacific.

Tania [09:26] So after, I was working with a community in a town called San Francisco de Icho. I was trying to return and I couldn’t because the community received death threats.

So I started working with the Gender Commission of COCOMACIA [Comisión Género de COCOMACIA], which is a Black farmers organization and manager of the collective territories that were achieved by Black communities in the Colombian Pacific. Since 2010 we’ve been working together. I’ve been collaborating in their projects and they have been collaborating with me in this digital storytelling project Mujeres Pacíficas.

What I’ve learned while I’ve been working with the commission—going to workshops, traveling by boat, attending meetings and marches—is that survival is an everyday process. It’s not accidental like we usually think about, but it’s a performative practice that requires petition, rehearsal, and a lot, a lot of energy.

[10:29] I think that this is important to recognize because sometimes when we think about Colombia now, we think about a postconflict space. But what has happened is that more than 400 social leaders have been assassinated since the peace accord was signed in 2016. I think that we need to understand that peace building is utopian. Peace is not a permanent state that can achieve be achieved, but it’s like something that people work on every day.

Cathy: Can we talk about your work in Baltimore a little bit? I know this wasn’t one of the questions that we originally discussed, but I think this is a nice connection.

Tania [11:24]: Yeah. So right now I have three ongoing projects and this is an example of why this takes a long time. I’ve been working on this since 2015 when I started as an assistant professor at UMBC [University of Maryland, Baltimore County], but I haven’t published anything about this project.

So one project, Intercultural Tales: Learning with Baltimore’s Immigrant Communities, started as a service learning project. But after the 2016 election we decided that we didn’t want to overburden communities with the additional task of collaborating with students. So we promoted this idea of creating autoethnographic narratives in classrooms with my colleague Thania Muñoz.

What we have found is that a lot of our students are second-generation immigrants or first-generation immigrants themselves. It allows us to do two things. One of the things that we’re interested in is how the university and the community are not necessarily separated and university and community collaborations sometimes reproduce this binary. We need to realize that students are the community.

[12:30] I think that part of the reason why that happens is because in universities, a lot of us have to move and leave our community’s behind. So this creates the idea that everyone is completely separated and disconnected.

The other thing that has happened is that we have realized that certain stereotypes that are circulating in mainstream xenophobic discourses are not viable once you start to listening to different experiences of immigration. So we actually see immigration as a spectrum more than immigration as a single experience.

I also have another project with a colleague, Felipe Filomeno, and this project is about having conversations about race and immigration with local communities, faith communities. So we have been having weekly dialogs with members of different churches in Baltimore. It’s been really interesting too to have these conversations outside of the university.

Cathy [13:21]: It seems like it’s a really great opportunity to show the range of transnational, transcultural collaborations and solidarities, without pretending that there’s one single way or one single method that works in all contexts.

So much of your work is place-based. So it’s very local in that sense, as you were talking about what are the concerns with these particular students, what are their concerns with their specific communities and neighborhoods that they live in. But it’s also deeply transnational. So there’s kind of local and transnational. All of your work in many ways shows that those things aren’t separate, they are deeply intertwined.

Tania [13:57]: For sure, for sure. And I think that this is what happens when you start listening to people. That includes what happens when you listen to your students, listen to your colleagues, and listen to people who have lived in the place that you just moved to instead of just bringing your own ideas and trying to impose them.

That is one of the things that happens with humanitarian aid, this assumption that someone knows what another needs instead of just asking. In everyday communication, we don’t assume that we know what people want—we just ask. And I think that is something that we need to start doing in research and teaching a little bit more. Just ask and have a conversation about what we could do together.

Cathy [14:42]: This brings me to my favorite question that I get to ask folks, which really gets at the heart of why you do the work that you do in the world. That’s that vision of a better world that you’re working towards when you collaborate with students, when you put together these kinds of research projects. So I’ll ask you what is a big question, but I think an important question: What kind of world do you want?

Tania [15:02]: I like that question. I remember having a conversation about this in an Imagining America conference. The first thing that came to mind that time was about a world with open windows. Maybe this is because part of my family lives in the Caribbean so there’s this idea about everyone has their windows open all day.

But I think that what it means for me is it’s about a world without borders or at least a world in which passports and centers of detention are not the norm, where your nationality doesn’t imply anything else more than your place of origin. Where you can choose, where people can choose, how to identify.

I also would like to see a world where military and incarceration budgets are not bigger than education budgets. Or, even better, a world without budgets at all.

And specifically I think about access to education and access to justice in a way that doesn’t mean reproducing violence.

I want a world where people are encouraged to tell their stories and where others are willing to listen. I think that it’s important that we’re willing to learn together in public and we can imagine together other ways to do the same kind of things that we have been trained to do.

Cathy [16:24]: Well, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all of the ways that you imagine otherwise.

Tania [16:29]: Thank you, Cathy.

Cathy [16:35]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud, Sarah Grey, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]