Radically Creative: the role of research in creating an ethical future
The following is the text of a speech delivered by brap CEO Joy Warmington to Middlesex University's Postgraduate Researchers' Summer Conference on 4 July 2023.
"The challenge these days is to be somewhere, to belong to some particular place, invest oneself in it, draw strength and courage from it, to dwell in a community." - bell hooks
I have to admit to being seduced by the title of this talk and also by my liking of bell hooks. Actually, I was so intrigued that I found myself juggling my own teaching commitments so that I was able to attend today. Thank you for inviting me.
Of course, this talk is a set-up. How do you deliver a speech on being radically creative – something that is inviting enough to really challenge notions of conformity and engage all of you in thinking through the implications of your work?
So, I'd like to begin by asking you a question: When was the last time you were radical?
This is where I need you to be very honest – hands up, please, if you found it easy to think of examples of when you were radical... I can imagine that for some of us, it was hard to think about a time when we were radical. We possibly spent some time defining what is radical, which I would expect of academics!
Many of us arrive on the world stage with the energy and ambition to make an impact. I'm guessing that would also include many of you. I know that I would count myself as someone who gets up in the morning and asks themselves, "What can I disrupt today?" I've never been much of a conformist, but even I struggle at times to reflect on what it means to be radical – and I ground my work in the belief that falling into line with what exists often means that we are severely limiting our potential and cutting ourselves off from opportunities to imagine and create a different kind of world.
I'm going to use the time I have with you to explore the implications of being radically creative – and what I believe would need to be different for research and academic institutions if they were doing this.
I'm the CEO of brap – a national equality and human rights charity. Next year, we will be 25 years old. In a nutshell, I describe brap as a ground-breaking equality and human rights charity that aims to transform the way we think about and do equality, shifting the dial on a frustrating lack of progress in addressing social, economic, and health inequalities across the UK. But what does it mean for brap to be radically creative in our work to bring about a step change in equalities?
My parents came to Britain from the Caribbean.
On my first day of school, I remember being very excited. When I entered the classroom, there were these cute little desks that opened, loads of children, but most importantly, lots of toys, including a real-life Wendy House. I couldn't wait to get into this Wendy House, and at break, I ventured towards it – only to be told by all the little white girls inside that I wasn't allowed in. What I hadn't fully grasped was that I was the only Black child in the class and that we learn to discriminate at a very early age. Even though this was my first day at school, it was not my last experience of racism.
School wasn't very good at recognizing and proactively responding to racism. As a child of the comprehensive system, there were no plans for me to 'think.' My school measured its success by getting children to finish school so that they could get a job.
Like many Black children at the time, it was presumed that I was 'thick' – mostly because I didn't talk very much and kept myself to myself. I'm here today because of my parents and the one teacher who plucked me from the obscurity of the remedial classroom and parachuted me into the top set. I don't think that my experiences of school were unique.
Racism is a belief system that is constructed around the superiority of those who are white/identify as white and the inferiority of those who would broadly describe themselves to be people of colour. Schools still teach and talk about different races. They obscure ideas of equity by the use of multicultural education. Knowledge, instead of debunking racism, is often used to normalize it.
There are still many children today who face discrimination, who are negatively labelled, and are disproportionately excluded. The routine nature of poor educational experiences is alarming, and despite decades of structural reform and a multitude of reports on discrimination, change is slow, and racist experiences are relatively routine.
Back to my own experience of education – for me, college was better – but university did very little to ignite my passions to be radical. It required a level of conformity that, in my view, was elitist and in service of creating rules and boundaries that maintained the existing system – rather than trying to change the world. I wasn't sure about university, and I didn't end up going, as many do directly after A-levels. Instead, I ended up doing my first degree while juggling parenting and work.
By then, I had realized that having a university degree was a passport requirement for most jobs – rather than an experience that taught me how to think more critically and one that challenged me to see the world around me as one that I could influence and change.
Those experiences stuck with me. Not only the casual nature of discrimination, but also how just as easily it could be swept under the carpet, and the power of conformity that maintains our belief in winners and losers.
Over the last 3 years, in particular – since the murder of George Floyd – a fair few universities have felt the need to respond to the pressure from students to recognize not only the limitations of their curriculum and teaching and learning strategies – but the disproportionality of the awarding gap, which means that young people can enter with the same qualifications, and that Black young people, in particular, routinely exit university with less than they might have deserved. This awarding gap is in the direct hands of educators.
The makeup of senior leadership and number of Black professors in higher education is also questionable and demonstrates the thinking and actions not of a progressive and radical institution – but one that often feels behind the times and outdated. Higher education institutions are also uneasy with their history – and whilst they cannot come to terms with it – their legitimacy in the present is questionable. Having said all this, I also believe that university can also be a place of ground-breaking knowledge and a nurturer of the impossible.
But when it comes to the challenge of being equitable, ethical, and inclusive, universities are like many other public institutions we work with – sometimes lacking in analytical skills in this area and locked into ways of doing things that have little chance of making an impact.
We are often approached by universities – not to help them think about how we change the world – but to partner on projects that require them to reach out to Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic groups – to conduct yet more research and consultation. Many universities are very wedded to generating the types of research that add to the wealth of information on those who are marginalized within our society, and many research grants sponsor these topics. This is a deficit approach to evidence production and one that we are very comfortable with.
But using evidence can be important.
brap, the charity I lead, also exists in a world where legitimacy is often measured by our relationship to evidence. Surprisingly, there is a tendency, when it comes to issues of equality, not to use evidence to make a case for action.
Despite the passage of the first race equality act, nearly 60 years ago – we still do many of the same things to address race inequality and racism that we did 60 years ago. We are wedded to these activities (consultation, yet more consultation, increasing representation, training, outreach, monitoring & data) despite any evidence that these activities really work.
In this area, the area of equality, evidence is the last thing that we turn to because the evidence would suggest that we need to do something entirely differently if we are to stand any chance at all of getting different results. In this case, not drawing on evidence protects the status quo.
Despite the many reports that we read about racism/discrimination and how many people 'suffer' as a consequence, we are still not quite prepared to admit that racism really exists. We look for ways to dismiss it, and we sit and wait for the next report and for racism to be proved yet again. This is a routine that we easily accept and one that brap and others have recognized.
So for brap, we have found the use of evidence in this area of equality to be quite a radical act – to ask people why they think doing x or y will make a difference – and watching them fumble for the answer – because usually, there isn't one. It can prevent people from jumping into doing things that make absolutely no difference. So many policies and interventions are based on impoverished thinking – and in the main, we accept this.
We have little clue how to create a more equal society without disrupting our existing belief systems. Setting targets and writing policies appears to be about the best that we can do. In areas of the country where diversity is the norm, unequal outcomes are still aplenty. We appear not to be able to think more systematically about why this is and our responsibilities for creating it. Our response to issues of discrimination, whether they be about racism, sexism, ableism, etc., is often about trying to ease the discomfort – even though reports often tell us that these issues are systematically present in our organizations because they are systematically part of our society.
So, when it comes to equality, there is a lot of data telling us how unequal our society is – and possibly much more of this type of evidence on the way. Academia is also a culprit here.
But there is real poverty of evidence that evaluates the impact of our efforts. Most importantly, from our perspective, there is very little critique, disruption, or even analytical skill involved in this type of work – resulting in the production of reports that use data very badly – and often reproduce/recycle the recommendations of previous reports. All of this gets us nowhere fast.
For brap, being radical is to question our approach to equity. To challenge the belief, for example, that simply supplanting one type of person for another type of person – within an existing culture – can create sustainable change. We are not saying that being more diverse is not a good idea, but that it is only a partial answer.
Not only do we question the shakiness of the evidence we use in this area, but we also question our intentions. Is equity how something looks to us – or is it about our experiences and ultimately the impact of a system?
We also use different methods and approaches to work with individuals and organizations in this space – but I'll talk more about that later.
"Class is more than money. Class is also about knowledge." – bell hooks
Another important quote by bell hooks, critiquing how knowledge is controlled and sustained.
Hands up if you have been watching the television or listening to the radio, and there is an announcement about the production of a report. It is often announced as if the report will offer new insights and great illumination – and then it says things like "poorer people are less likely to access university" or "there is racism in elitist sports such as cricket" – and you sit there and think to yourself, "I already knew that…"
The creation of academic knowledge contributes to a 'privatization of meaning' – academia has become the judge and jury of what is considered knowledge, and furthermore, it is academia that marks its own homework by determining what is considered relevant – and in doing so, it supports and locks in the status quo.
For me, there are questions that need to be explored. Who is research for? Is it for the researched or the researcher?
There are libraries stuffed with literature on the oppressed and vulnerable. There has been much less written on privilege and the forces that sustain it.
And when academia feels criticized for their research methods and approaches, they then seek to engage those who have been oppressed – training them in the use of research methodology and to carry out research with people 'like themselves' – all of which serves to reinforce their own oppression and upholds the status quo.
The refined and inaccessible language of academia, the lack of access to research – often hidden behind paywalls, the incentivization of research ratings – means that the system is filled with vested interests. Can we be honest about the impact of those things on our ability to be radical or creative?
In a society organized around the idea of scarcity, inequity, and there being winners and losers, insiders and outsiders, academia fuels our belief system by convincing us that it can be neutral or objective. The idea that academic knowledge can ever be neutral is a lie.
I must confess, the notion of research as an objective endeavour has always perplexed me. The idea that knowledge can be detached from the biases, beliefs, and values of those who seek it is, quite frankly, a fallacy. Yet, it is a fallacy that academia clings to, asserting its neutrality and objectivity in the pursuit of truth. But let us question this assumption for a moment and consider why research cannot, and should not, be regarded as objective.
When we engage in research, we bring with us our subjective perspectives, shaped by our experiences, backgrounds, and social positions. Our very presence as researchers introduces a level of subjectivity that cannot be ignored. We select our topics of study based on our own interests, biases, and the prevailing intellectual trends of our time. We design our research methodologies, choose our data sources, and interpret our findings through the lens of our own preconceptions.
The language of academia itself further entrenches subjectivity in research. The use of complex jargon, technical terms, and convoluted syntax not only excludes those outside the academic sphere but also reinforces the notion that knowledge is the domain of a select few. This elitist language serves to maintain the existing power dynamics and restrict access to knowledge, hindering broader participation and understanding.
And don't get me started on referencing!
I was working with a biomedical research centre the other day – they had asked to be supported to develop a better understanding of anti-racism. When we introduced the history of how and why race was constructed and the birth of scientific racism – it dawned on them that they had been working with the idea of racial categories as a biological reality – rather than the idea of 'race' as a social construct.
They had never thought about the foundations of knowledge that their research stood on and that this knowledge was developed to subjugate, marginalize, and enslave human beings – so that other human beings would be able to exploit them.
Their research, instead of challenging racism, was working to uphold our racialised belief systems. To support the idea that there are different 'types' of people and the belief systems upon which this thinking is based. Furthermore, pharmaceutical companies have enjoyed and profited from creating medicines for different types of people. Even though there is often a fuzzy genetic relationship across people from the same nationalities and ethnicities, there is no gene that is found in one type of human that can't be found in another. In other words, human beings are genetically very similar.
It was the famous physicist David Bohn who said, "Thoughts are how things appear to the mind."
Does research expand our consciousness? Does it question our thoughts? Does it challenge what we think we know?
It will always serve someone, so ask yourself the question: Who is your research for?
One of the things that I struggle with is the idea that theories of knowledge are actively reproducing the status quo. It can be hard to interrogate, imagine, or even believe that there are different ways of knowing and being outside of our dominant paradigms and beliefs.
What we often experience in brap in our work with public institutions is a mirroring of the processes that reproduce the status quo. Public sector institutions often privilege ways of knowing that destroy the soul. They reduce our humanity to charts and statistics. They tell us that problems don't exist when they do.
If we are unable to 'prove' something, then it can't really be true. Many people experience discrimination but are forced to do so quietly. They know that proving their truth can be a painful process where they are often dismissed at every level.
For many, there is little confidence that the institutions that serve us won't harm us. Furthermore, research can be actively used to punish those who are already marginalized by the system because it aligns itself with dominant paradigms.
To ensure that our beliefs are preserved, a whole industry has been created, anointed, and maintained. In the public sector, many people are employed to administer and serve this system—equality impact assessments, creating false assurance through rating systems, ways to collect and analyze data, write reports, talk about information, talk about those who are vulnerable.
Our whole relationship to knowing is based on a version of proof that is sanctioned by the establishment. And if those in power wish to, and they often do, they can 'dismiss' this 'so-called' evidence despite asking for its production.
How many times have we sat and waited for a report so that we can at last be clear about what to do and how to make progress, only to be disappointed by its recommendations or, even worse, watching its recommendations being dismissed by those who don't believe they should be implemented?
The legitimacy of evidence is determined by those in power.
So, I ask the question again: Who does your research serve?
The foundations of academic research and the dominant theories of knowledge are active agents in reproducing social and economic inequity. Dualism splits (mind from body, researcher/researched), ideas about objectivity and neutrality, reason, validity, etc.
There is something missing for me in the constancy of belief systems that actively reproduce social and economic inequity. Ideas about objectivity, neutrality, reason, and validity may have a place in some forms of research, but they don't appear to fill the gap that we have created between us all in our 21st-century lives.
"The moment we choose to love, we begin to move against domination, against oppression. The moment we choose to love, we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others." bell hooks.
This might seem a strange quote and a strange thing to say, but love has a place in brap's work. If we are unable to see ourselves as people, first and foremost, living together, being together, surviving together, ultimately being interconnected, what place is there for equality? The equalities landscape invites us not to be whole, to split and siphon ourselves off into ever-decreasing versions of ourselves. To separate ourselves from one another as a means to obtain a very small piece of the cake.
Choosing to love is a movement towards freedom; it is an opportunity to step out of the oppression of living our lives through the lens of others and being subjected to our place within society. bell hooks invites us to transcend the limitations that others have placed on us and to reclaim our full humanity by recognizing that our liberation is bound up with the liberation of others and that our approach to liberation is fundamental to what we achieve.
brap works with organizations and individuals by inviting them to tap into their humanity. We remind people of love. Many people came into the public sector for a purpose: to nurse, to cure, to educate. But this doesn't happen if you split off your head from your heart. Losing our purpose is part of what the system wants from us. It requires us not to feel. brap's work is steeped in embodied practice—in reconnecting us to ourselves and our purpose.
Knowledge hasn't helped us understand oppression—not really. We have written books; we have published papers. But have we really changed who we are and how people experience us? In other words, have we utilized knowledge to create a better version of ourselves?
So, I ask you... What might love mean for academic research? Is it radical? Is it creative? Is it at the heart of a more equal, ethical, inclusive, and sustainable future?
The idea of our interconnectedness is often discussed as a dream. Our relationship to the environment, however, offers an urgent case study on what can happen when we are not cognizant of our actions. We are beginning to recognize that a culture of consumerism and our quest for material wealth are destroying our planet and creating consequences that not only negatively impact so-called poorer nations but also the wealthy. Economic justice, it seems, is not just a mantra of activists but is a survival strategy for our planet. It is an expression of love.
I've noticed a movement towards nature and indigenous wisdom—not just because of climate change but because there is a determination to find something that holds more meaning for us, something that doesn't split off the mind from the body. That recognizes that it is us who have limited the potential of our planet, in the same way that we have limited the potential of other human beings. This is also an expression of love.
But what is the role of research in all of this?
To acknowledge the subjectivity of research does not diminish its value or render it meaningless. On the contrary, embracing subjectivity allows us to recognize the inherent biases and limitations of our work. It compels us to approach research with humility, reflexivity, and an openness to multiple perspectives. By acknowledging our subjectivity, we can engage in more honest and critical dialogues, challenge dominant paradigms, and create space for marginalized voices and perspectives to be heard—not to be exoticized or used to maintain the status quo.
It would imply legitimizing other ways of knowing and being, both in research and as researchers.
Research, instead of positioning itself as the only truth, could strive for transparency, inclusivity, and intellectual honesty. It should be guided by a commitment to social justice, ethical considerations, and a recognition of the power dynamics at play.
For example, research and researchers that position themselves on the side of the oppressed (not as neutral observers of inequity and injustice) can become a tool for understanding structures of inequality and oppression that permeate our society.
Researchers who recognize that ideas about objectivity are also alive with purpose – and that this purpose often serves our existing belief systems – may be driven to critically examine their own biases, challenge dominant narratives, and work towards a more inclusive and equitable knowledge production. In this way, research can connect mind with body.
It would also mean that research would have to contribute to a socialization – not privatization – of meaning.
For research to be truly disruptive and radical, institutions that host research and researchers would need to get their own house in order and walk this talk. It would have to get uncomfortable. It would have to see a version of the truth that it has often obscured from itself.
Views of knowledge and ways of knowing are preserved in these untouchable institutions – and it is this vested interest that locks academic institutions into a reproduction of the status quo and an inherent conservatism that is a long way from radicalism.
In my final comments, I’d like to leave you with some practical challenges and opportunities for change.
"Marginality is much more than a site of deprivation. In fact, I was saying just the opposite: that it is also a site of radical possibility, a space of resistance." - bell hooks
With the mainstream so heavily invested in its own preservation, it is at the margins where real hope is nurtured. It is here that people are not recognized as disposable; it is here where people are not othered. It is here where there is true creativity – because it is often required to survive.
The implications of radical creativity in social research are about... a dismantling of unexamined norms in academic life and research ethics; and a willingness to move towards marginalized knowledge, knowing, and being.
Much of our work within brap is working with people to help them recognize the unexamined norms that they uphold.
Organizations are filled with people with good intent. People doing their very best to make the best of challenging circumstances. Working to deliver against the odds. But the dial on inequality has remained stuck for a generation now, and in many respects, is getting worse. How many of us have been impacted by the cost of living crisis, recognizing the fragility of our lives, despite years of working hard and following the rules?
Disruption and being radically creative isn't just an approach that can have a positive impact on those who are made more vulnerable/marginalized – it can benefit us all. We are locked into believing that power is a zero-sum game. That if I have it, you do not. This type of thinking has led to a reproduction of a poverty of thought and action – a type of thinking that is abstractive as opposed to generative. We all have power.
My 'loving' challenge to us all individually and collectively, irrespective of our role or positional power, is this:
How will you test out your own assumptions and be transparent about what you believe?
How can you centre marginalized narratives as a means to challenge dominant narratives and stereotypes?
How does your research illuminate the root causes of inequality – rather than reporting on its symptoms?
How can you be aspirational by producing work that locates better versions of ourselves – and better ways of knowing and being?
How do you create opportunities to include marginalized thinking and experiences, without cultural appropriation, and positioning these as a spectator sport?
How will you shift the dial? What and who is your research for? What are you for? And how would I ever know this about you?
I'd like to end with a quote. It isn’t from bell hooks, but it does sum up the importance of this talk:
"It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds; what worlds make stories." - Donna Haraway, 2016
Photo of bell Hooks by Alex Lozupone (Tduk) - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45637047