Patricia Maguire
Patricia Maguire

Feminist Participatory Research

Educational and Teacher Action Research
Linda Abrams told me that to get a glimpse of the researcher’s human face,
she was forced to become a reader of prologues, introductions, reference 
notes, and appendices. You will not have to do that here. (Maguire, 1987) 

As a researcher and teacher, I’ve tried to make my human face apparent by sharing my struggles, annoyances, joys, values, and vulnerabilities. I take the position that researchers and teachers always bring our life histories, identities, and positionalities to our work. We take our baggage on every journey. Rather than hide it or pretend it doesn’t exist, our responsibility is to reflect on and make sense of how our unique experiences and beliefs shape and inform our work and interactions.

This section includes some of my backstories. Some stories are linked to a particular publication, presentation, or teaching resource for context. Kirsten Harrits and Ditte Scharnberg (1988, 1989) might call these small histories that help us learn about large history. Reading what someone else has gone through — their backstories — might help you try something new or see things with new eyes. While doing my doctoral research, I realized that I would be paralyzed if I continually compared my modest beginnings and exhausting middles to the near perfect documented endings of other’s work. I hope you will be encouraged by my small histories as you continue to write your own. Everybody has a story to tell.

Backstory⇒ An Educational Backstory

Neither of our parents, children of immigrants, were college educated. Yet my brother and I grew up with a consistent message: “When you go to college…” My father taught me long division at the round, formica‐topped coffee table in our turquoise living room. My mother took me every Monday to the A & P Supermarket to buy the next volume of the Golden Book Encyclopedia. The introductory volume was 29 cents; each of the subsequent volumes was 69 cents. I adored my mother. She was the strongest person I’ve ever known. Mom cooked dinner; dad did the dishes. Although my brother and I had chores, after dinner was homework time. I learned that the world could be accessed through reading and education.

My career aspirations evolved over time. St Paul’s Elementary School (1955‐64) had a caring contingent of Sisters of St. Benedict. I won a nun doll in a school raffle, sure it was a sign. I excelled at the school version of history — facts, dates, and great white men. A neighborhood friend and I prepared for the weekly history test while bouncing on a pogo stick in the middle of 9th Street. Each of us kept our turn on the pogo stick as long as we correctly answered practice questions. I became good at memorizing and pogo stick. I wanted to be a history teacher.

At Bishop Kenny High School (1964‐69) I continued memorizing and mostly excelling. In Sister Michele’s English class I had no clue how to decipher Shakespearean symbolism. Schooling had prepared me to memorize and regurgitate the right answer. Figuring out symbols required elusive interpretive skills I had not yet mastered. A confident, frequent talker, I was elected to student government. Girls were relegated to the positions of vice president or secretary. My working mother tried to warn me. “Never take a pen to a meeting. The men will try to make you take the notes.” I didn’t listen.

Fall semester at the University of Florida (1969‐73), the required American Institutions course opened my eyes. The first question on the first quiz was “Name the author/s of the text book.” Who in the heck paid any attention to the authors of a text book? Thick tomes for introductory courses were written in depersonalized language with no apparent voice. In Literature classes of course we learned authors’ names. Otherwise when answering a teacher’s question, we responded, “The Book said…” This was my initiation. The professor insisted that we know that authors bring perspectives and points of view to their work. At the time I couldn’t fully articulate the lesson, but I was on the road to understanding that there are no such things as value‐free knowledge creation, value‐free knowledge, or value‐free knowers.

I went through majors like tissues. After journalism and geography, I had a vague notion of becoming a lawyer. It was family lore that I was the only one who could win an argument with my mother. University lore held that any time a woman entered the UF Law School Library, all the men would shuffle their feet until she left. That sounded terrifying. I ended up in Psychology. I wanted to go on the London Semester Abroad Program. To afford it, I stayed home a semester and worked two jobs. Exploring London and criss‐crossing the continent on a Eurorail pass were confidence builders. I learned that the world could be accessed through travel and direct experience. Those experiences were best processed through late night conversations over ale at the Kings Head Pub.

With a B.S. in Psychology, I headed to the Florida State University for a Masters in Counseling (1973‐76). During high school I was in constant trouble with my mother for hogging the only family phone to help my friends solve the problems of adolescence. I’d become a good listener, but role playing and mock counseling sessions behind a two way mirror were scary. I memorized the theories that underpinned varied approaches to counseling, but I wanted a counseling how‐to cook book. Just tell me how to do it, step‐by‐step. Between winter and spring trimesters, I dropped out. I realized that I could never facilitate other people’s growth and development, until I had my own theory of how people grow and change. I returned to London and lived in Hampstead Heath as an au pair while taking weekend Gestalt workshops. My mother refused to talk to me for days before I flew out. No one gave up graduate school for the unknown. Eventually I returned to FSU to complete the Counseling MS. There I met my future husband Cal, while helping him chaperone a camping‐canoe trip for recovered high school drop outs. Until then, I’d never been in a canoe in my life.

Cal and I joined the US Peace Corps (1977‐79). I was assigned to the Jamaican Ministry of Education Guidance and Counseling Section. I spent months developing, distributing, and analyzing a national school counselors’ survey. The results would feed into the Education Five Year Plan. Although I routinely visited Kingston schools, I never thought to ask one counselor for his or her input on the survey development.

My supervisor wrangled money from US AID to hold island‐wide workshops to share the survey results with counselors. At the first workshop, a Jamaican woman stopped me cold. Her challenge: “Why don’t we tell you – and the Ministry of Education – what the data means.” Chagrined, I adjusted the workshop on the spot. Counselors analyzed the survey results and developed their own 5 Year Plan from the bottom up. The lesson about people’s desire to have a meaningful voice in things that impact their lives has subsequently informed my work as a trainer, educator, scholar, activist, and parent.

After Peace Corps, Cal and I wanted to expand our credentials for international work. Cal got accepted to the Bachelor of Nursing Program at the University of South Florida (USF). President Carter extended veterans’ GI bill benefits. With the extension and Cal’s own remaining benefits, Cal could almost make it through the two year nursing program. I got accepted to a Library Science Masters program, still in love with the power of books.

I planned to juggle classes with short‐term training consultancy work for Peace Corps. An RPCV Jamaica friend, Debbie Horen, introduced me to Peace Corps Washington’s training network. I was offered a short gig in West Africa at Bill Hansen’s Peace Corps’ Regional Training Resource Office. With an updated yellow WHO card and malaria tablets I flew to Lomé, Togo. One consulting job led to another. I dropped out of the Library Science program. For nearly a decade, I was a training consultant in West Africa and stateside. I recognized more people in the JFK Pan‐Am Lounge than I did in the town where Cal and I lived. Mentored by other trainers, I mastered the skills and theories for facilitating participatory, experiential training. I got braver in the world of action. But I wanted more theory to better understand development, poverty, and neocolonialism.

Backstory⇒ Women in development: An alternative analysis (1984)

When Cal finished his BS in Nursing, it was my turn. I followed Margaret Maxwell, my best friend in Peace Corps Jamaica, to the Center for International Education (CIE) at UMass Amherst for doctoral studies (Ed.D.). CIE had a reputation in development circles for projects and publications that built on the work of Paulo Freire and others promoting empowering approaches to adult education, numeracy, literacy, and health education. CIE was a nurturing, cutting-edge, vibrant community of development practitioners. It was also a community of strong women scholars and activists. I continued consultancies to supplement a small assistantship.

I immersed myself in Women in Development (WID), for example the work of Esther Boserup, Gita Sen, Ellis Boulding, and Isis (an international women’s information and communication service). The UN had declared 1976‐85 as the Decade of Women. International agencies were busily publishing evaluations of their initial efforts to include women in development projects. I titled my analysis of those evaluations Those Ladies Dove is Dead: The Lack of Progress Report (1982). To set up my analysis I wrote:

In summary, the broad goal of WID programs was to do something for women, or was it do something to her: to integrate her, improve her status, to increase her participation. Somewhere further down the line was the stated goal of actually including her in development decision making. And even that was usually in terms of including her in decisions that impacted her; there was little emphasis on including her in making decisions that impacted men. It was a one way street with a lot of stop signs.

I continued, “The message is, ‘Bring women into the mainstream’ (maybe…and slowly), but leave the mainstream alone.” (p. 9). The male‐stream was safe.

In lieu of oral comprehensive exams, CIE doctoral candidates wrote and defended research papers. This was pre‐internet, pre‐cell phone, and pre‐laptop. Composing on the electric typewriter my parents gave me as a college going away present, I used a lot of Wite‐Out. Over several years, Those Ladies Dove is Dead evolved into Women in development: An alternative analysis (1984). To get there, I immersed myself in feminist theories. Later I was influenced by feminists of the global south, particularly their critique of the entire development enterprise. The work of Caribbean feminists Peggy Antrobus, DAWN (Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era), and Patricia Ellis expanded my understandings. Re–reading my monograph years later, I see that my own analysis of feminist theories was unsophisticated. I’m reminded of Patti Lather and Getting Smart. I wasn’t that smart. But it’s where I started.

I submitted a workshop proposal for the Association of Women In Development (AWID) Conference in Washington, DC. In Strategies for Nurturing Feminist Visions in Women in Development, I asserted: “The topic proposed for discussion is not whether or not to relink/link feminism and WID; not discussion of the pros and cons of linking feminism and WID. The topic is HOW to create and nourish feminist visions in our work.” No more asking permission.

Through the push and challenge of colleagues at CIE, I wove together many threads of my life. Development, feminism, experiential learning, social justice activism and eventually participatory action research came together for me. Once I saw the value of reflecting on cycles of theory and action (praxis), I could not un‐see it.

Backstory⇒ Doing participatory research (1987, 2000 edition)

I was an avid learner when I arrived at the Center for International Education in 1981, and hungry for camaraderie. CIE had a unique participatory governance structure of weekly Tuesday Meetings and working committees. Faculty, staff, and students made decisions collaboratively. Committed to the messiness of participatory governance processes and participatory learning, we tried to walk the talk. Yet our research approaches lagged behind.

David Kinsey started an Alternative Research methods course, tapping into the international network of participatory research centers funded by the International Council on Adult Education (ICAE). It was a heady time for aspiring participatory researchers at CIE. Over several years the leaders in the field came to CIE. Rajesh Tandon, who headed the Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA) group in Delhi, spoke. Paulo Freire gave numerous workshops, as did Miles Horton of the Highlander Folk School and Ira Shor. Peter Park was at UMASS in the Sociology Department. Motivated by David Kinsey’s course, I was determined to try participatory action research. I had a research approach in search of a problem, instead of a problem in search of the most appropriate methods.

In other courses, I had dug into the literature of women in development and feminist theories. Outside the classroom, I got involved in the local women’s movement. There was a strong CIE community of women activists. The U.S. students were involved in local community activism, as the international women were vocal in their countries. They generously shared their expertise, critiques, and resources. When I asked international women at the center what I, a North American, could do to promote women’s equality around the world, many had sage advice. “Stay home and work to change your government. Elect a new president. You do that and we’ll take care of our countries.” Keep examining your own racism and neocolonialism was a subtext. It was time for my dissertation field research.

Cal distributed his resume to numerous world health agencies and the US Indian Health Service (IHS), a subsection of the US Public Health Service. The calls came in hot and heavy from the US Indian Health Service. While we had traveled or worked in the Caribbean, west Africa, Europe, and Cal in southeast Asia, we really didn’t know the American southwest. Calls came from Ft Defiance, Tuba City, Chinle, and Kayenta. We’d run to the atlas, trying to figure where in the world Ft. Defiance was. Cal accepted an Emergency Room position at the Gallup Indian Medical Center, the hub of IHS services on the Navajo Nation. The recruiter astutely told him, “It’s not nowhere, but you can see nowhere from the back door.”

In April 1984, we drove 2,297 miles from Amherst, Masschusetts to Gallup, New Mexico to start the next chapter of our lives. Gallup is a border town to the Navajo Nation and Pueblo of Zuni. The area is culturally rich, and economically poor. I had a dissertation proposal to write. Reading and writing alone, far away from the CIE mother ship, was initially isolating. It was well before the internet, email, or cell phones. Email service didn’t become readily available to the average person in the USA until 1990‐95. Snail mail letters to and from friends, particularly Gudrun Forsberg, were a lifeline.

At a laundromat, I found an ad calling for volunteers for the local battered women’s shelter. The community of women, staff and clients, at Battered Families Services (BFS) became another lifeline. Kim Alaburda and Sue Foster‐Cox remain friends till this day. Initially I was a volunteer, meeting abused women on the run. From the police station, I’d escort them to the shelter’s secret location. BFS gave me a part time job to develop a volunteer training handbook, Getting it together…together (1985). Through Kim, I met another doctoral student, Elaine Jordan. She was doing a very traditional, quantitative dissertation; I was doing PAR. We became fast friends, supporting each other through the doctoral process. It was the beginning of a 25‐year friendship, and eventually a long partnership at WNMU‐GGSC. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

By day I volunteered at the local battered women’s shelter. At night I was deep into feminist theory and Habermas. I’ve written elsewhere about how that juxtaposition brought me to a feminist critique of the early male‐stream of participatory action research. The 1970’s feminist critiques of traditional social science were largely ignored by the male inner circle of participatory action researchers. Despite an acclaimed commitment to liberation and transformational intentions, PAR was in danger of becoming one more male monopoly. When you claim to use research to change the world but exclude or marginalize women, and our varied theories, well, what kind of world are you trying to create? We already had that world.

But who was I, “just‐a‐graduate‐student”, to see this or say anything? I admired and respected the social justice work of these men. But you see what you see.

Because you might wonder, I have never received any money from Doing participatory research (1987, 2000). It was reprinted four times. With one exception, all of the proceeds went back to the Center for International Education. For over 40 years, the CIE community was a prolific producer of field reports, technical notes from its many cutting edge literacy, popular adult education, and nonformal education projects, as well as curriculum materials, and policy documents related to CIE’s work in the international development arena and crisis contexts

To make its publications easily and cheaply available to non-government agencies and community or development project staff all over the world, CIE intentionally kept publication costs low. No authors received any money. CIE routinely exchanged documents for those from small scale agencies and groups. Any money that was generated in excess of publishing costs was put into paying for CIE graduate assistants to manage the Publications arm and Resource Center. CIE’s Publications inventory is now available free via UMASS-Amherst’s ScholarWorks

At my request, CIE made a small donation directly to the Gallup Battered Families Services agency in recognition of their support of the project I did with former battered women that led to Doing participatory research. It was the first time CIE made such a donation.

Backstory⇒ Teaching at the WNMU ‐ Gallup Graduate Studies Center

The Western New Mexico University ‐ Gallup Graduate Studies Center (GGSC) was my academic home for nearly 25 years. Located high on the Colorado Plateau in northwest New Mexico, the GGSC served the area communities. But WNMU really shouldn’t have. In the early 1980’s Gallup-McKinley County School District (GMCS) begged universities to offer graduate courses to its personnel. The district, the size of Connecticut, was the largest school district by land mass in the lower 48 states. Although Gallup had a two year branch of the University of New Mexico, the northwest quadrant of the state was the only quadrant without a four year state university, and no graduate education. Much of the northwest quadrant was covered by the Navajo Nation. WNMU heeded the call to serve Gallup; but it really should have fallen to UNM, whose main campus was in Albuquerque. The state higher education funding formula at the time did not reward serving Gallup. Students of organizational politics know that center-periphery power dynamics are always such that the center tries to keep its resources, sharing as little as possible with the periphery. Gallup was definitely on the periphery.

The WNMU main campus was a five hour drive by single lane road from Gallup. I was a local hire and the third Director of the GGSC in as many years. Initially I was the only full time faculty member. The school district provided an office the size of a large broom closet. I was thankful for it. UNM-Gallup, a two year facility, let us use a small hall on their campus for night and weekend classes. The toilets there backed up so often, the Roto-Rooter man thought he was earning graduate credits. I recruited my dissertation buddy, Dr. Elaine Jordan, to work with me. And work we did. Somehow we moved our office to a vacant doctor’s building. We had a lot of bathrooms, and the same Roto Rooter man. Then the school district let us use a defunct elementary school for classes. The building had been deemed unsafe for elementary school students because it was next door to a gas plant. The school and the gas plant were in the flight path of the local airport. We were thrilled with the space. The bathrooms never backed up.

Donna Rees, Dean of Extended University, was our relentless ally on WNMU main campus. The Gallup Center generated a lot of tuition, and the state funding formula changed, making it more lucrative to offer graduate courses in Gallup. The Governor had declared that no new higher education money could be spent building new campuses. We couldn’t build our own facility, so we found a work around. My colleague Libby Quattromani talked a local businessman, Morgan Newsom, into building a facility to our specifications, and renting it back to us. While the building was under construction, sometimes Libby and I would eat lunch on the concrete pad. GGSC was so successful that Morgan built an annex within three years, doubling our space. Eventually our team grew the GGSC to 9 full time faculty, a few staff, several hundred part-time graduate students a year, a cadre of adjunct faculty, and a rented home of our own.

During the great recession, public higher education encountered fiscal challenges, especially in poor states. For years, New Mexico was the third poorest state in the union, behind Alabama and Mississippi. The conservative narrative was pushed that higher education was a private good, not a public good. With the change in sentiment came a reduction in funding for public higher education. State legislatures reduced allocations to public universities. The WNMU main campus, itself reeling from reduced state funding, closed the Gallup Graduate Studies Center in 2017. In the end, it was not a sustainable space for many reasons. But the WNMU-GGSC had a magnificent 30+ year run. Its legacy is the careers of hundreds of teachers, administrators, and counselors.

Backstory⇒ Teaching Action Research ‐ Syllabus

About 2000, my focus shifted from community–based participatory action research to school–based teacher action research. This was prompted in part by expanding the masters degree offerings at the Gallup Center. Julie Horwitz directed the new masters of elementary and secondary education. Martha Gomez directed the masters in special education. We collaborated to closely align the action research and MAT Practice Teaching capstone courses. The masters programs inherited from main campus required students to take the traditional methods of research course. They learned to be better consumers of others’ research, but were not required to produce research of their own. It took me a few years to navigate the university course approval process. Eventually I got the EDUC 503 Action Research course included as an official component of the MAT programs.

Inspired by bell hooks and Paulo Freire, we acted as if the classroom was a space of radical possibilities. We wanted our teacher education programs to facilitate the development of critically reflective teachers with strong mastery of teaching competencies. Our curriculum was designed to help teachers focus both inwardly on their identities and classroom practices as well as outwardly on the social conditions that shaped and influenced their students’ lives. We wanted to help teachers find and raise their voices to question, unsettle, and revision the purposes and practices of U.S. education. As Susan Noffke noted, action research is a way to make schools better places for children and the people who teach them.

Backstory⇒ From Convergence to Congruence (1997)

During the planning of the Cartagena World Congress PAR/AR, Budd Hall invited me to speak on “the feminist advance in participatory action research.” He and José Maria Rojas were the Convenors of the Plenary Session on the History of Participatory Movements. My eighty year old mother chided me, “you know you’re getting old when you’re put on the history of panel.”

Less than an hour into the Congress Opening Ceremony, I realized that my topic, the feminist advance in PAR, was too optimistic. The marginalization of women at the Congress became apparent opening night, and went downhill from there. Congress organizers had firm commitments from six important men to appear in person at the Opening Ceremony. Included were the Presidents of Columbia and Brazil, as well as a renowned economist, a past president of the International Sociological Association, Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Paulo Freire.*

One of the scheduled male luminaries could not attend the Opening but he sent his speech. His words came out of the mouth of the lone women on the dais. I recall she was outfitted in a sharp green dress, I don’t recall her name, nor can I reconstruct it from my notes. As a substitute, she was not on the official program. No other woman was on the dais or sub-dais, nor had any visible presence in the Opening. Marja-Liisa Swantz noted that although she was on the organizing committee, she had never been told that the sub-dais tables were for the organizing committee.

The Opening was a very formal, hierarchical set up, perhaps intended to give gravitas to the Congress. Perhaps it was thought to be fitting for the cultural context. But much of the Congress structure was incongruent with the values underpinning participatory and action research. I acknowledge that designing a more participatory conference was a challenge.

In my short presentation at the Plenary Session History panel, perhaps the day after the Opening, I noted that the Congress theme, Convergence, should be changed to Congruence. The Convergence theme was to recognize the bringing together of the many diverse strands of Participatory Action Research and Action Learning/Action Research worlds. But clearly there was a lack of congruency between the espoused transformative values of participatory research and parts of the Congress and our actions. Most of the Convenors who had public roles introducing sessions and moderating panels were men. Yoland Wadsworth noted that 40 of the 49 convenors, rapporteurs, chairs, and plenary session panelists were men. It became visually clear early on that the men of participatory research were running the show. Later it became known that these issues had been raised in the planning stages, apparently to no avail.

While my observations about women’s marginalization at the congress may have garnered a few cheers from the floor, the more effective outcry came on the fourth day of the five‐day congress. In some recognition of the hierarchical, non‐participatory, male‐dominated structure of the Congress, Peter Reason and maybe Budd Hall structured a feedback session titled “Convergence and Divergence”, following a Methods Stream panel. The proverbial shit hit the fan. Norma Romm, Susan Weill, Yoland Wadsworth, and many other women spoke up in outrage from the congress floor. Yoland said that the rapid succession of women jumping to their feet and speaking out felt like a relay race, one woman handing off the baton to another. The Congress women would not be quieted. Yoland asked, “Why had our men, of all people, for whom it is their work to assist others to give up colluding with power – so easily themselves colluded?”

The Convergence and Divergence feedback was intense. At some point I think Peter was overwhelmed by the outpouring. Having moved from the floor to the dais, Peter took the microphone. He talked about feeling conflicted over what to do the next day. As one of the appointed rapporteurs, in a Comment piece written after the Congress, he captured his conflicted feelings. “For how do I honour this need for participation which has been expressed here, and also honour the invitation of my hosts? Should I continue as if nothing has happened and take my place up here tomorrow? Or find another way to behave.” He wrote that next he surprised himself and ended the session by saying, “And now I need to leave because I need to have a pee.” He continued, “I picked up my hat, placed it on my head to leave the room… I left the hall and the session broke up.” Peter reports that early the next day he bumped into Budd Hall who said, “Peter, this is terrible; it’s wall to wall white men all through the day.” They decided to ask a woman to chair an afternoon session that Peter was slated for. Mwajuma Masaiganah of Tanzania agreed. She surprised them by also enlisting four other women. Peter wrote: “We certainly shouldn’t be assuming that because we espouse the values of participation we know how to create participative processes.”

* Paulo Freire, beloved and deeply respected, was widely recognized as the face of participatory research, indeed the face, the head, the heart as well as the leader of education for critical consciousness, i.e. conscientização. Sadly, Freire died just months before the Congress. I think it was understood that Orlando Fals Borda, likewise deeply respected, would take up the mantle. During the Congress, before the eruption of women from the floor, there were many grumblings and quiet conversations in hallways and over meals about the hierarchical, not-very-participatory, male-dominated flavor of the Congress. Out of respect for and loyalty to Orlando, there was an almost unspoken agreement not to embarrass him or the Congress organizers by publically bringing attention to these issues.

We participatory action researchers were on notice however. If this could happen to us, by us, on the inside, what could we expect out there? It wasn’t enough for us to consider how feminisms could inform PAR, we had to confront how male privilege was being reproduced or unsettled in participatory action research. Yoland Wadsworth later observed, “We cannot depend on the ventriloquism of good men.” Of course there were feminist–identified male allies. I acknowledge Davydd Greenwood and Budd Hall as vocal feminist allies. Going forward, we had our work cut out.