Research with young environmental activists in the UK: challenges and opportunities presented by COVID Lockdown to the researcher and the researched

dogbod2020, blog

by Dena Arya

Like many researchers, particularly those whose focus is empirical, my data collection was stopped in its tracks in the days leading up to lock down in the UK in March 2020. Along with my research grinding to a halt, so did my ability to think beyond the basics in those days. This rotated around; how could I keep myself and family safe, what information I needed to absorb and what I needed to discard in the assault of the media ‘infodemic’ on COVID and if washing my food shopping was taking it a step too far!

As the weeks passed the disbelief began to subside as many tried to find a ‘new normal’. I started to remember some of what I had put down in trying to understand what had been happening to the world around me. I remembered to wash my hair, brush my teeth and that I was doing a PhD, somethings I had all but forgotten about in the haze of those early lockdown days.

As the amnesia lifted, I remembered my networks of young research participants. I was two months into data collection in a PhD in Politics and International relations at Nottingham Trent University when the pandemic spun out of control. I remembered that young people across the country were struggling with the shock of what had happened, some only weeks and months away from sitting GCSE’s and A Levels. I remembered that before I was a PhD researcher, I was a youth worker and that my involvement with my participants would always be from the position of a youth worker-researcher.

Some personal context; I worked in the youth sector in the UK for over a decade before embarking on my PhD. Over this period, I had the privilege of working with groups of young people who consequently inspired me to carry out youth-led academic research. The focus of my research is how economic inequality impacts the way in which young people engage in environmental politics in the UK. As these months pass, I find myself more and more certain that this is worthwhile intellectual pursuit as the relationship between COVID, inequality and climate change become apparent.

During lockdown, I have observed a range of constraints and opportunities to research with young environmental activists. These observations may be useful more widely for researchers engaging with young people to reflect on when making data collection plans in the coming weeks of lockdown and subsequent months of social distancing, where meeting young people face to face will not be possible.

Pre-lock down I would have met potential participants at protests, events, conferences and other such data locations. I would have built trust, rapport and relationship in an organic and spontaneous manner, but during lockdown none of this was longer possible. Whilst as a researcher this has been a challenge, some young activists have highlighted this shift as an opportunity for building networks. Some are finding that they are better able to build networks that they were not doing as well offline. This is mainly due to activism coming off the streets, out of community centres, building occupations and schools, onto online platforms like Zoom, Slack, Discord and Signal.

Despite this, and critically many young activists raise concerns that the lockdown and the ensuing restriction of large public gatherings, and with-it direct activism, means that they no longer feel seen or heard. Prior to the lock down momentum was building both in Extinction Rebellion Youth and the UK Climate Strike Network. National and international protests and weeks of actions were about to take place. The COVID pandemic put a stop to all of it. Although the Fridays For Future movement exists online with Digital Strikes and Fridays For Future online webinars and talks every Friday, it has drastically reduced the feeling of being seen and heard for many young activists and climate strikers. This is not true for all young activists, especially those from rural areas who even before the pandemic depended on the internet to be seen and heard. Some young people who live in rural spaces are finding that they are able to attend more meetings and get more engaged in environmental action. Before they would have had to have travelled to attend planning meetings or strikes. Online platforms have in some ways been an equaliser between urban and rural climate strikers. Despite the shift online, some young activists, part of Extinction Rebellion Youth continue to take part in direct action in the form of die-ins and protests outside buildings and land linked to the creation of the High Speed 2 (HS2). Many young people do not feel safe, able or are willing to risk arrest to take part in direct-action during lock down.

As a researcher with ethics boards to answer to, I too am not able to take the risk to attend these actions. So, my attention has turned to the online world. This shift in attention has not come without its challenges. Engaging with potential participants via their social media comes with profound ethical considerations. Age, consent, public profiles, data protection and online safety of young people to name but a few are factors that have to be taken into account. Even if access challenges such as these are overcome, young activists feeling safe online is also an important consideration. Some young activists are increasingly concerned about surveillance online, choosing not to discuss some matters with me on platforms like WhatsApp or Zoom, opting instead for encrypted platforms like Signal and Telegram. There have been historic issues of surveillance and undercover police infiltrating environmentalist groups. Some young activists have reflected that using platforms created by private corporations means that none of their anti-establishment actions are safeguarded against police interference and surveillance. This also raises ethical questions for me as a researcher as I attend online planning meetings of young activists where I carry out ethnography.

There have in this time been some unexpected opportunities bot for research and activism. I have been able to engage more deeply and with more frequency with the young activist that I had built networks with prior to the lock down. Acquiring reliable and in-depth data requires relationships that go beyond the researcher and the researched. Young people’s engagement, either in consultation, co-production or research can result in participants feeling like nothing more than data points. To do the labour required to create relationships with participants that are not seen as tokenistic, are imbedded in mutual aid and co-operation and built across horizontal lines of power, will yield more authentic understandings of the social phenomena we are observing as researchers. With this in mind, during lock down I have been involved in a variety of activities with my participants which have included; sharing articles and reading materials, running and being a part of reading groups, having video calls simply to chat and share lockdown blues, helping with job applications and personal statements, supporting with school work, attending climate pub-quizzes or quite simple checking in with a text message. At times this has meant exposing myself emotionally to my participants. whilst they have been struggling with the effects of being indoors for weeks on end, so have I. Reflecting on my conflict regarding how much to share and how honest to be through the process has been an important part of development as a researcher.

None of the above would have been possible without the extra time that both participants and I have had on our hands. Whilst some young people are attending online classes through school, others have been furloughed from their jobs or lost their zero-hour contract jobs. Almost all the young people I know have moved back or already live with family, parents or guardians. Consequently, opportunities have arisen in access to under 18s parental consent. Anyone who has worked in the youth sector can tell you that getting a young person to take a letter home, get it signed and bring it back can sometimes feel like the success of the century. Whilst young people are at home during lock down, many times with one or both parents in the other room, getting signed parental consent has far less complicated and increased the likelihood of doing research with this younger and harder to access age group.

For some the vacuum created by less schoolwork and little to no employment has given young environmentalists more time for activism. For some that looks like educationals and planning meetings, for others national and regional networking on platforms such as Slack and Zoom. Others against the odds are busy managing plans for direct action. Some are working on more electoral forms of engagement such as national and regional youth councils. Many are self-educating collectively and individually. Young activists have seen a clear link between COVID, capitalism and climate change. Overall young activists appear to be as motivated and as ready to act as before the pandemic hit. Far from destroying the environmental youth movement, it seems from my observations to be generating a new momentum, albeit in unforeseen ways.

These observations require deeper investigation and my work as a researcher is far from over. Whilst this pandemic has forced researchers like me to re-think their methodological approaches as well as the nature of data collection, ethics and access, it has by no means stopped my research in its tracks. I had imagined spending the past two months darting up and down the UK, meeting young activists at demonstrations and actions across the country, hearing chants, photographing placards and listening to impassioned speeches over megaphones. Instead I have been invited into Slack meetings, ‘Zoomed’, had long discussions over Discord and got cramp in my thump messaging over Signal and Telegram. This intimate, and might I add totally free expect for the cost of my broadband, way of building relationship during this tragic time in human history has coloured the kinds of stories my PhD will tell. I in no way intend to paint this as a ‘blessing in disguise’ or see the pandemic as ‘useful’ to research with young activist. Instead, I realise that despite the challenges, now more than ever research with young people is imperative and we need to use our tools, in any way that we can to make their voices heard.

About the Author

Dena’s life experiences bring a unique mix of skills and understandings to her-research area. Having grown up in the UK as a refugee and worked as a BME female for over a decade in the youth and community sector, she has a distinct position from which to engage in understandings of power in marginalised spaces. Her journey through the youth and community sector began working at Enfield Council’s Children’s Services. Here she supported vulnerable young people and their families. During this time budgets were slashed, and youth centres closed down. To understand the structural causes of this disarmament, she undertook an MA in International Social Policy with a focus on youth and citizenship policy. Post-MA her focus has been youth and community engagement and social research. These experiences have led to her methodological interests being centred on co-produced and youth-led qualitative research.

Her research interest in youth political participation stems from the early days of the financial crisis. In her practice with young people, she has witnessed the developing socio-economic pressure they face and the ways in which they navigate this. Further, her interest in environmental politics stems from her own environmental activism that she has been involved with as a young person and adult, resulting in projects with NGO’s in India and Slovakia. The culmination of her vocational and voluntary experiences as well as her personal experiences of environmental and social justice activism have led to her PhD research interests.

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