Can you hear me?
Will you listen when I talk?
Will you write the words I choose to say?
And will you say the words I choose to write?
Do you hear me?
Tell me … why?
Why should I speak to you?
Why should tell you my story?
Gift it to you in different ways
Each time hoping you would honour it
Watch as you unwrap, tear, distort, repackage and re-gift it… yet again.
Erasing the messages, I have left for you
As you gain status for retelling MY story
While I…. I am left with one less story to tell.
This is a story about stories.
October 2013 and I am sat in a room with four young Somali men, Ahmed, Faisal, Mustafa and Mohammed. Young men I have been supporting for two years up to this point as a community youth worker. I had just received ethical approval from my university and I am eager to speak with these young men about my research. I would be looking at identity and belonging… topics that they have raised with me on a number of occasions. Topics I have heard being discussed in the cafes and on the corners of the street countless times. Topics we discuss with our families. We are a diaspora community, questions about belonging and identity are in the fabric of our everyday lives. And I knew these young men, or so I thought. I had developed a trusting relationship with them over the years, or so I thought. So surely, like me, they would leap at the opportunity to share their stories… or so I thought.
I didn’t receive the response I was anticipating… Silence. They just looked at me.. as if I was different. As if I had suddenly become a stranger.
“Why?” Mohammed asked me “Why do you want us to do this research?”
I paused, “…because it is an opportunity to share your stories, if you would like to”
“But we do, we share them every day… with you and with each other” said Ahmed, “so why do it in this research?”
I felt more scrutinised in that moment then in any supervision meeting leading up to this point.
“Because your stories matter to me, and I want to do research that matters”
“…ok” Ahmed responded, and the young men got up to leave.
I realised what I asking, and being asked in that moment. I reflected on the Linda Tuhiwai- Smith’s (1999) ‘Decolonising Methodologies’ book I had read just a few days earlier, and realised I was the ‘insider/ outsider researcher’ she spoke of. Familiarity didn’t help in that moment, it didn’t matter how long they had known me, my affiliation with the university and my role now as a researcher was enough for them to question my intentions.
Why should they tell me their stories? Who was I to even ask? I should have known better. Research has always been a ‘dirty’ word in our community. ‘Tell us your story’ is a phrase we often hear from researchers who stay just long enough to mispronounce our names … I should have known better.
I took a few days away to think about alternative research topics, determined to leave this behind… but something drew me back to belonging and stories and something pulled me back to these young men. I wrestled with the countless other research methods I could have used, and why each one just didn’t quite feel right.
A few days later Ahmed called and said and that he and the other young men, wanted to meet again.
“Listen, we do want to do the research with you Muna, but will you let us choose how we tell our stories” Mustafa said
“OK” I responded.
We sat down and designed the research together. I set the themes ‘identities’ and ‘belonging’…and they chose the method. They would construct artefacts and we would return together in a fortnight to have individual reflective conversations about the artefacts and their stories. Conversations were important to them because they had all been ‘interviewed’ before and this time, they wanted to decide what and how they would share.
Mora and Diaz (2004), argue that participatory forms of research are a means to challenge the often contradictory goals between the university and the community, the hierarchical relation of power that privileges academic over local knowledges. If I was going to do research that mattered, I needed their help to set the terms… all the terms.
They would be the architects of their own stories…. but these stories didn’t stand alone, so we talked about my place in the research. I remained an insider/outsider researching, often holding a space in- between that carried with it the weight of two worlds. A space, that over time I had to learn to navigate. I had stories too, stories that at times felt worlds apart from theirs, and at times painfully close. They shared their stories and asked me to share mine… after all, this research would need to be a conversation.
Linda Tuhiwai- Smith (1999) states “When Indigenous peoples become the researchers and not merely the researched, the activity of research is transformed. Questions are framed differently, priorities are ranked differently, problems are defined differently, and people participate on different terms” (p. 193).
They were a part of the research now, beyond simply participating… it mattered to them too.
The research became about much more than collecting stories. In telling our stories, theirs and mine we found connection and understanding in words and silences…. And the silences were often just as, if not more important.
Mustafa spoke of the power of stories to change perception. “You don’t know me, really know me, until I tell you who I am” Mustafa reflected… “If I tell you my story, I’m telling you who I am. You just have to listen”.
For Faisal the power lay in silence “I feel like now that I can tell my story, I can also choose not to, and which stories don’t need to be told…not now anyway… and I like that… having the choice”.
(Audre Lorde (1985) in her beautiful essay ‘poetry is not a luxury’ explains that “as we learn to bear the intimacy of scrutiny, and to flourish within it, as we learn to use the products of that scrutiny for power within our living, those fears which rule our lives and form our silences begin to lose their control over us” (Lorde, 1985).
Mora,J.A., & Diaz,D.R. (Eds.). (2004). Latino social policy: participatory research model. Binghamton, NY:Haworth.
Smith, Linda Tuhiwai, (1999). Decolonizing methodologies:research and indigenous peoples. NY: Zed books.