AGING ACTIVISMS RESEARCH TRAJECTORY
As the person leading Aging Activisms, I am enormously grateful to the many relationships and collaborations that have informed and continue to inform this research program and collective. These relationships are with so many scholars, activists, students, friends, family members, mentors, and co-accomplices that it would be impossible to name them all; they are also with several different places, lands, and waters – most significantly the territory of the Michi Saagiig Anishinaabeg. I acknowledge especially Melissa Baldwin, formerly my graduate student, who has co-led this work with me from its beginning, and who has given hugely of herself while learning about research, activisms, and community engagement in this process. I also recognize the care, energy, and intellectual input offered by every one of my research assistants, interns, postdocs, and graduate students since 2015. And, while Aging Activisms is very much a collective effort, it is also, ultimately, led by me, and so it seems appropriate and accountable to offer some words on my (and its) trajectory.
Aging Activisms has its roots in the research I carried out prior to beginning at Trent in the Canada Research Chair in 2013. Between 2004 and 2012, I worked in Durban, South Africa, where I spent most of eight years documenting how older women in South African communities were responding to the combined pressures of poverty, violence, and HIV/AIDS, and how they were linking into a Canadian-based transnational solidarity initiative (you can read about it here!). Since 2013, I have built on this work, initially through a wider study of why and how older women in different movements across Turtle Island (North America) were organizing, connecting, and working for social and political change. This expanded project, the seeds of Aging Activisms, focused on two networks of older women activists: GRAN, a relatively new Canadian advocacy network engaged in the global HIV/AIDS movement; and the Raging Grannies, a longstanding, North America-wide movement of peace and environmental activists. This work complicated dominant understandings of feminist movements, extended existing conceptualizations of “solidarity,” and challenged marginalizing narratives about gender and aging.
Since 2013, Aging Activisms has grown and changed in all kinds of exciting, critical, and creative directions. One emerging direction was precipitated by an invitation from GRAN members in 2013 to support its creation of an activist archives. I began to examine why and how groups become active creators of their own archives and how they creatively engage in memory work: with Pat Evans, former GRAN co-Chair, and Melissa Baldwin, Aging Activisms co-pilot, I explored the diverse ways in which activists collect, create, keep, and circulate different forms of records. We noted gaps in analyses of aging and intergenerational dynamics within feminist and decolonial writings on the archive. From this, I began to pursue more nuanced understandings of aging, activism and the archive – in collaboration with Dr. Gabriela Aceves Sepulveda (Simon Fraser University), who researches the archival practices of artists in the Mexican Feminist Movement. This work has developed into my ongoing collaborative project, Manifesting Resistance: Intergenerational Conversations about Activist Memory Work across ‘The Americas’ (check it out!).
Significantly, this exploration of activist archiving sharpened my critical epistemological and methodological focus, raising important questions about which activist contributions are remembered and transmitted to future generations, and how these stories of social change are told. I approach archives as a window into the politics of knowledge, asking what and who are typically included in the archives and what kind of knowledge is made possible as a result. I am also continuously asking what and who are typically included in academic knowledge production about aging and social movements, and what kinds of methodologies might be required to push the epistemic boundaries of this field.
As a result, since 2015 Aging Activisms has significantly expanded in focus beyond GRAN and the Raging Grannies – most of whom are white, settler, working/middle-class, cisgender women of a similar age demographic. We are now striving to explicitly unsettle certain colonial, Eurocentric, and heteronormative conceptualizations of both “aging” and “activism.” Our work pivots around three important conceptual learnings: (i) a broadening of “aging” to mean a process that occurs from birth to death, and not simply a phenomenon of later life; (ii) a broadening of “activisms” to include not only formal protest, rally, and advocacy, but also, depending on the context, cultural/spiritual ceremony, land-based practices, artistic interventions, and survival; and (iii) a commitment to engage in knowledge production intersubjectively and intergenerationally, including through storytelling across difference. (Check out our 2018 book!)
In 2016, I partnered with Dr. Kim Sawchuk from Aging + Communication + Technologies (ACT) at Concordia University to organize and facilitate a digital storytelling workshop in Montreal (check it out!), developing one such approach to intergenerational activist storytelling as a research methodology. In Nogojiwanong later that year, I partnered with the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG – Peterborough) and the Trent Community Research Centre (TCRC), to start up a new project of generating a local oral history of activisms – in doing this, I drew on the storytelling approach I learned in Montreal. This was the launch of the now multi-year program, Stories of Resistance, Resilience, and Resurgence in Nogojiwanong, through which I have also partnered with other community groups, including the Kawartha World Issues Centre (KWIC) and the Peterborough AIDS Resource Network (PARN) (Check it out!). In this project, the Aging Activisms team brings community activists together across generations and movements in a series of workshops, to share and record diverse stories of activisms in Nogojiwanong. This project explicitly focuses on the lesser-told and frequently forgotten stories of activisms in place – engaging especially activists who identify as racialized, Indigenous, LGBTQ+, and older, and drawing on queer, decolonial, and feminist approaches to intergenerational storytelling as knowledge production methodology. As part of this project, Aging Activisms has launched a special collection at the Trent University Library and Archives, making interviews and stories widely available to the community and to future generations. I also run a field course in which honours students can participate directly in this research.
This research is a work-in-progress. It remains continuously open to invitations to work with activists, community organizers, social movements, and grassroots groups in ways that expand all of our understandings and support critical praxis. Please do get in touch with questions, feedback, and ideas. I would love to hear from you.