Building a Community-Focused Laboratory, with Max LiboironFebruary, 2022
Collaborative laboratory spaces can model research that addresses the politics of knowledge production, professionalization, funding, ethics, and authorship. But how do researchers actually organize and structure community-focused work within universities?
Dr. Max Liboiron (@MaxLiboiron) leads the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR), a feminist and anticolonial lab at Memorial University, Canada. Dr. Liborion joined us to discuss the structures, strategies, and tactics of building a lab from the ground up, with a special emphasis on creating labs for community-based work.
The event was hosted by Dr. Nathan Matias (@natematias), founder and director of the Citizens and Technology (CAT) Lab in the Communication Department at Cornell University. CAT Lab works with online communities to study the effects of technology on the public interest, envisioning a world where digital power is guided by evidence and accountable to the public.
This blog post summarizes Dr. Liboiron’s presentation and the Q&A session that followed. It is intended to serve as a resource for people with questions about how to run community-focused labs, alongside Liboiron’s blog post on starting CLEAR, maintaining CLEAR. The video recording of the event is also included below.
Dr. Liboiron starts their presentation by noting that it won’t be a big theory talk. It’s mostly logistics, which is most of what it means to create and run a lab. However, their approach is very informed by theory from feminist STS, collective organizing, union practices, and environmental justice movements. They note that CLEAR provides a specific model, not a universal model. This means that what they do won’t work the same way for everyone.
CLEAR is a collective, not just a collection of individuals or people who happen to be Dr. Liboiron’s students. They work as a collective in the way that social movements do. They use consensus-oriented decision-making to make lab decisions. They also use a facilitation model, not a leadership model. This means that Dr. Liboiron’s job is to get everyone’s knowledge on the table, not tell everyone what to think about. This takes a lot of time.
The lab focuses in three equal parts on: producing research, producing methodologies, and creating/maintaining a collective. The lab produces research in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. They study plastics pollution and do environmental monitoring. They also produce work in feminist and anti-colonial STS, geography, and other disciplines. To do this kind of work (e.g. bringing feminist STS into science spaces and vice versa), they often have to think carefully about methods, because it’s not always clear how to do the work. When the average academic method assumes only academics participate in science, this can be both insufficient for the research and unethical to use in community-based work.
The biggest collaborative research project at CLEAR is collaborative monitoring of plastics in Nunatsiavut. Nunatsiavut is an Inuit land claim area in Northern Labrador. Liz Pijogge, who works with the Nunatsiavut Government, is the main research partner/collaborator on this project.
The shape of the lab is unusual. They have 15–25 members — enormous for this kind of lab. They’re based in a university, which shapes and constrains certain forms of activism for doing community-based work. They are truly interdisciplinary, to the point where Dr. Liboiron doesn’t even remember everyone’s disciplines because it doesn’t really matter. They have between 3-20 community partners at a time, but don’t recommend too many more than 3.
Over the last several years, the lab has run on about $6 million, at about three-quarters of a million a year (in addition to Liboiron’s salary from to run. The money almost entirely goes to pay lab members, who are paid at or above union wages. Because of the size and complexity of partners and finances, CLEAR has a lab manager. Having more than 7-10 people is untenable for the PI without a lab manager. The lab has both administrative and research cores.
Also unique about CLEAR is that most people in the lab are not grad students. Dr. Liboiron has 3–5 grad students at any given time (normal for the department). But most lab members are undergrads. There’s also full and part time staff, the community members, university staff who work with the lab, and other faculty members. Sometimes there are high schoolers, and there was an 8 year old who was a full member.
The lab has a narrow hierarchy. Dr. Liboiron doesn’t recommend a truly horizontal structure in a university because they probably don’t really exist. They’re the director, there’s a lab manager, and then everyone else in the lab is horizontal in the hierarchy—whether they’re senior faculty or high school students. High school students aren’t assumed to know less overall than faculty because they know differently. They have a situated perspective that is important for methodological innovation. When people have been doing this for a long time, we become professionalized and can’t think of new things as easily. But younger folks are great at that.
Every year there’s one lab-wide project that is decided by consensus with everyone at the lab. But otherwise, not everyone is involved in community-based projects by necessity. E.g. for the Nunatsiavut project, there’s people working on samples, there’s Dr. Liboiron as the point of contact, there’s the lab manager who is organizing masters and PhD students doing dissertation work (never alone, always with others in the lab). But there’s also smaller projects with different constellations of people. Other than the one lab-wide project, no one works on everything except Dr. Liboiron (not even the lab manager).
CLEAR runs meetings using anti-oppressive facilitation. The lab has a post about how to run equitable lab meetings. Facilitation is not the same as a leadership style. Dr. Liboiron does not decree things for people to follow. Their job is to address power dynamics consistently in the lab. This is what makes them a collective, and is also important when community members are part of the lab.
People often ask how CLEAR hires people. An important part of being a feminist and anti-colonial lab is talking about and doing things related to equity, humility, and accountability. This means that they’re not radically inclusive. For example, they wouldn’t take people who are in the truckers convoy, because the lab must be a safe space for it to work. The interview process is very important. Dr. Liboiron always includes at least one other lab member in the interviews to talk through things together. The last question in the interview is about what model of collaboration the applicant favors out of three options.
1) “Leader” — Consult with scientists and community groups on a research question, work on the project independently, and report back. Publish work as first or second author.
2) “Facilitator” — Facilitate a research project with a community group, sharing resources and capacity. Don’t have autonomous control over the project. Research never gets published, but is very useful to the community.
3) “Jill of all trades” — Work on a lot of different projects in the lab, doing a little bit of everything. Know a lot of what’s going on and acquire a lot of skills. Publish as middle or end author.
These aren’t the only ways to work, but they’re distinct enough to get a feel for how people will fit into projects, relationships, and what they understand good partnership to mean. There’s no universal model of good partnership. Full partnership where everyone comes to the table and always shares ideas and is always equal is not possible and not always desirable. But seeing where people are in terms of their ethics, skills, and inclinations are important.
Why invent new processes and lab structures? Some might say for better science, better mentorship, etc. What are the values the collective has articulated for what you’re trying to achieve? Are there examples of this playing out in a project?
There’s a lot of possible ways to think about this. One involves the story of Dr. Liboiron’s research studying plastics in fish. Fish is a big deal in the province, and they chose cod because it’s a big part of the culture and economy. When they found a plastic pollutant in the cod, they were excited from a science standpoint. But they realized that it would be difficult to communicate about finding a pollutant in the cod, which was the lifeblood of the province. They realized that talking about it could cause harm regardless of what the findings were. To find out how best to approach this, they needed to talk to local people.
This practice matured into what they now call community peer review. They bring results to a community meeting and talk about their findings. Community members talk about their relationships to and interests in the findings, and questions they have. To make this happen, they need to hire local people who can get others to come. Otherwise no one would want to come to an academic meeting.
For this project, Dr. Liboiron had a lot of fishermens’ daughters working with them, getting samples, talking to folks, and helping them understand the relationships of different fish to different communities. Because Dr. Liboirion was a professional organizer for a while, and was involved in Occupy and different indigenous movements in New York, they were trained in anti-oppressive facilitation and consensus-oriented decision making. They had these skills for running meetings that were different from how colleagues did it.
They were really excited about community peer review and doing statistics with non-statisticians, and things that developed out of the need for co-analysis with the community. But when they asked people what the coolest thing about the lab was, the answer was usually that “it’s a safe place to eat my lunch at the university.” Through these methods, they created a space that had a higher than representational amount of e.g. queer, trans, disabled, indigenous folks that was an important part of the lab. And it was important to continue.
CLEAR’s earliest community collaborations came out of hiring local folks. There wasn’t usually an official partner. They developed such a good reputation locally for not being jerks to fishermen and being willing to do stats with them, not assuming they knew more. After that, people started reaching out to them for partnerships. For Dr. Liboiron, actions have to precede words. They don’t partner without invitations, and don’t go seeking invitations.
Process is important to how CLEAR reimagines doing science. CAT Lab studies the digital environment just as CLEAR studies the physical / biological environment. We often find ourselves also trying to reinvent how statistics is done and figure out how to do it with communities. How do you think about sharing ideas and practices with others who might find them useful, and do you see it as an output of the lab?
Creation, sharing, and documenting of processes is part of running a lab. Documentation is a feminist practice. CLEAR’s lab book includes how they hire, how to gut a fish, how to identify plastics visually, how to create lab values, and how we do author order. A lot of labor in community-based labs is process-oriented, but invisible to universities. It’s hard to get promotion and tenure by doing a lot of the work that goes into community-based work. It’s politically important to use documentation as a way to make discernible and legible things out of process labor — for example, by publishing papers on methods.
But they don’t share everything. CLEAR operates under an indigenous data sovereignty framework. Indigenous partners own their data models, methods, maps. If they choose to share, great, but it’s not CLEAR’s intellectual property. Healthy boundaries are a huge part of working in full generosity—you can’t give everything.
When we envisioned CAT lab, many people warned not to try it until after tenure. Some people see community-based work as risky because we’re dependent on community collaborators. It also takes more time, which could be spent cranking out science in the academic, non-community-driven mode. How did you think about building CLEAR from the start as an early career faculty member?
Community-based research is riskiest for grad students. Sometimes your community partner doesn’t show up or there’s a change in government and the work is no longer a priority. Faculty can absorb some of this risk but grad students can’t as much. They make sure grad students have a plan B, C, etc. Many indigenous grad students work with their own governments, which is super risky and affects not only them but their families. But the translation work of BIPOC people doing labor that isn’t necessarily visible always happens. For example, working in DEI spaces or becoming everyone’s invisible mentor because you’re one of few indigenous faculty. Because we all do this work anyway, making a lab is one way of making it more apparent. Having a lab means having a bunch of people working toward something. You can co-author work and bring a lot of people with you. For example, lots of undergrad co-authors who are mostly indigenous, queer, women, two-spirit, etc. When the lab is slow, Dr. Liboiron cranks out solo work.
Anyone who says to wait until after tenure, wouldn’t do it after tenure either. And because getting tenure is exhausting, there’s new reasons not to do things after tenure. Dr. Liboiron’s university has a strong union, and supports community-based work not only discursively, but materially with funding. Local knowledge and community-based work is written into tenure evaluation criteria. This is why they chose this university.
How do you fund and sustain the lab?
Money does make the lab go round. The lab is designed to expand and contract depending on the funding situation. It’s designed to withstand a loss of funds. For example, they don’t have a spectrometer. They always rent, so that they don’t have to pay for upkeep. The lab can go down to 3-4 members—projects will shrink and timelines expand.
The exception is the lab manager. Lab manager is a full-time position with union wages and regular raises. It’s paid with contract grants, not operational funds. A lot of science grants are bigger than social science grants. The lab managers always come up through the lab and are always hired out of undergrad. They haven’t been professionalized by third parties, and are more likely to work the way they want them to work—not leading but facilitating, not taking up space but making space for others, researching with humility. Undergrads are way better at this stuff. They don’t want to hire an outside person because the lab manager is the day-to-day point of contact and needs to have a really good grip on the lab values. Because the lab manager is hired out of undergrad, the role is supposed to be short term. Dr. Liboiron pours a lot of professional development money into helping them use the lab as a springboard.
A lot of community groups are not eligible for government funding. Often, Dr. Liboiron beards for them — doing the administration, accounting, reporting etc. This way, they’re funneling the government money back to land. Call it anti-colonial budgeting. They’re holding about $2 million that’s not their money. It’s useful for promotion and tenure, but doesn’t produce research because it’s not their money or data.
Can you say more about consensus-oriented decision-making?
Consensus-oriented decision-making is a technique that Dr. Liboiron did not invent — there’s training and books on this. The lab has a video called “How we choose our values” that shows how they do this over a long time to choose values. They outline a proposal and see where people are at. Do people have issues? Then amend the proposal until people have no more issues. This can take anywhere from one meeting to months. The point of consensus is not that everyone agrees equally — some people are super pumped and some people just agree to move forward. What’s important is that no one’s been disenfranchised and no one is unheard, and everything has been addressed. In the Occupy movement, Dr. Liboiron saw 200 people, most of whom were jerks, agree on stuff. It’s a technical skill and process.
How can you apply the community-based approach to other fields?
There’s a neuro lab called the van Anders lab, which is an explicitly feminist neuro-endocrinology lab. They have a great model that is similar to CLEAR’s.
People say things like “people don’t really know how to do statistics, so your participatory statistics probably aren’t really statistics.” But the reality is that even though Dr. Liboiron has this technical knowledge, they don’t know how stuff works outside of the academy, and community members do. We each have our bridges to overcome, and Dr. Liboiron’s job is to do that translation work.
There’s a story from when they were doing participatory work with fishermen in Fogo Island. The scientists wanted to do climate change work, so they got a ton of temperature data. The scientists thought that they should probably graph it for the fishermen and explain the difference between weather and climate, etc. But when they got there, it was embarrassing because the fishermen grabbed their raw data sheets, looked at the huge pile, and described their graphs to them before they brought them out. The fishermen knew the difference between weather and climate better than the scientists did. Fishermen are expert samplers — that’s what fishing is. Because part of fishermens’ job is logging to comply with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, they are very spreadsheet savvy. They don’t use the same terms — instead of calling things outliers, they just say “you can ignore this one.” They could call out outliers effectively because of their local knowledge.
A group at CUNY has spearheaded participatory statistics when it comes to race and policing in New York City. This is the model for inferential stats, not just descriptive stats. The models are out there. So when people say “my discipline can’t,” it’s mostly because it hasn’t — not because it’s not possible. The work is about saying, “okay, how do we do this.” Undergrads and community members are way better at thinking about this because they haven’t been professionalized in closure yet. It doesn’t matter how radical we are as academics, or where we come from — being successful as an academic makes you close-minded in other ways. Community work always needs paid local folks and undergrads.
Are there trends in what people pick from the three kinds of collaboration styles?
Undergrads choose “jill of all trades” all the time. They just wanna learn a bunch of stuff and don’t care about publication / prestige. Indigenous folks often don’t trust the leadership one and pick one of the other two. White dudes often pick the leadership one if they’re not undergrads. What’s interesting is hearing why they pick, and if someone deviates from expectation, understanding why. Often as people move through the lab, they come to understand what facilitation really means. By the time they leave, they usually come to understand that facilitation is good and fulfilling, even if it’s not their personal style. And that’s hard for people to understand at the start coming from individualistic academia.
What do unions and unionization contribute to the lab?
At their university, grad students, undergrads, many but not all staff, and all faculty have strong unions. In this province, unions are how British rule relaxed their hold over the colony. So it’s a conservative but very pro-union, pro-labor organizing province.
Everyone is paid in their lab. People try to be volunteers, but CLEAR won’t take them. The enrichment model of free labor is exploitative, no matter what people’s intents or desires are.
The unions have set up payment such that there’s a ladder of pay raises, and then you get promoted into another box. When grant-writing, they can write in the wages at the top of the box, and funnel it down to students at the bottom through things like professional development. Because wages are set by the university, granters never argue with e.g. $26/hr for an undergrad.
From feminist movements, things like cleaning, bringing gluten-free cookies for dietary needs, organizing meetings — this is all considered intellectual labor that adds value to knowledge production. Cleaning in the lab is understood as quality control and preventing contamination. These feminist forms of invisible labor are not only paid, but given authorship credit
When writing job descriptions, they make sure to write them in a way that lands people in union jobs. HR tries to write non-union job roles. Adding advising other students as a role lands people in fancier, unionized job titles.
What are questions we should be asking as we think about establishing labs, or continuing to grow labs? What are commonly asked questions or things you wished people would ask when trying to establish labs with this ethos and purpose?
Some combination of: style of mentorship, size/structure of lab, and what to do with people who come in who are abusive. Some version of this comes up in everyone’s lab.
An advantage of 4 month contracts on all positions is that if someone needs growing, they can just not renew their contract. You can’t do that in a business, and it’s also not terribly union-ish. They have only ever fired one person in the lab, who was very abusive to other students. They tried a lot of conflict resolution and restorative justice approaches to bring her into good relations. Most interpersonal relations can be worked out through facilitative restorative justice-type stuff. There’s a section in the lab handbook about apologies.
Dr. Liboiron’s style of mentorship is not terribly hands-on. It’s not warm and fuzzy, and people don’t come to their house, and they don’t make tea for people. They don’t do the matriarchal, highly-feminized mentorship style. They believe in giving a lot of leeway for mistakes, which means they can have a large lab. You can’t have a large lab if you have a closer, more interpersonal mentorship style. CLEAR does have a hierarchy and leverages it, so if you’ve reduced that hierarchy you have a different set of challenges from CLEAR’s. It’s important to mesh together your style of mentorship, the organization of your lab, the size of your lab, and the processes. Dr. Liboiron’s style won’t work for everyone.
People often ask if Dr. Liboiron gets pushback. They say: not from anyone that matters. When you do meaningful work with the community, it looks like that’s what you do. Sometimes they get angry emails from white dudes about equity in the author order process, and they get hate mail for being an indigenous academic. But they don’t get this pushback from their department. Doing meaningful work with communities matters, even if others don’t recognize it. Instead of fear-based organizing, we need desire-based organizing.