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Celebrating 40 Years of Community Based Research with FOIST- A Visit to Sassari, Sardinia, Italy

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The Jesuits founded the University of Sassari in 1558 as a Catholic learning institution.  There are over 18,000 students today.  Located in the town of Sassari, in Northern Sardinia, the University has 700 academic staff and 13 departments, study centres and institutes.  The University of Sassari is structured as most universities, with the normal range of disciplines and departmental structures.  It has however an interesting community-university engagement and research structure called the FOIST Laboratory for research, education and public engagement. FOIST celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2017.

In 1977, around the time that participatory research was emerging in the global South and the Science Shops in the Netherlands, a young sociologist named Alberto Merler began to challenge the academic traditions of the University of Sassari.  He was active in the community, both locally and in other parts of Sardinia and Italy.  He was aware that knowledge and action on issues of social justice were to be found in the cooperative movements in the region, in the civil society organisations in the city and indeed in the social movements of the time.  How could a university respond to the changing times?  His idea, an idea that was soon supported by others was to create an organisational space within the University that would be open to both academic and non-academic users. Begun as a documentation centre, FOISTs’ mission today is to educate, train and share knowledge and information with communities. It was designed to support community action and research, as well as to become a point of reference for students and practitioners. FOIST’s research focuses on CBPR with a strong engagement in positive social intervention to promote change through civic participation, solidarity and community empowerment. FOIST has also been engaged in training students in CBR and CUE at the undergraduate, Master’s and Doctoral levels. Andrea Vargiu, a Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences is the current Director of FOIST.  Other members of FOIST and IntHum that I met were Mariantonietta Cocco, Romina Deriu and Stefano Chessa,  Francesca Antongiovanni and Marta Congiu.

The connection between research, learning processes and civic engagement with the community is further reinforced thanks to collaboration with IntHum, a newer nonprofit association set up by FOIST in partnership with 4 CSOs.  Alberto Merler, now retired from the University continues to lead IntHum providing continuity with his vision and experience. FOIST and IntHum have contributed to and benefited from working both the European Commission projects PERARES and EnRRICH. Andrea Vargiu, the University of Sassari are active players in the European and international knowledge democracy movement.  Their work is shared through the Living Knowledge Network, and international exchanges with Brazil, India, Canada and other parts of the Mediterranean.

An organic connection
Four days with an organisation does not normally entitle one to very many observations, but I would like to share some reflections based on the very brief introduction to the work of FOIST, IntHum and the community groups and University academics that I met.  My first observation is that there appears to be a long-standing and organic connection between those working with FOIST and with the various community organisations that I encountered.  The Community University partnerships that I witnessed were not one-time projects, what the literature sometimes calls ‘drive-by’ projects.  Alberto’s work has gone on for 40 years.  Andrea and his colleagues have followed this work with the same spirit. Our community guides in Santa Maria de Pisa, the leaders of the community centre working with prisoners, women’s organisations, cooperative leaders, social enterprise developers were all part of a larger world of active citizens that included the university folks as equals.  Everyone seemed to know each other well.

My second observation has to do with a sense of time and respect.  I am used at my University in Canada to be very bound by time.  Everyone is so busy it seems.  We schedule conversations in 15-20 minutes segments for meetings.  When we have presentations, we tend toward brief presentations of 15-20 minutes.  This is the way that our conferences are structured as well with sometimes 10 minutes for a presentation.  Granted that my visit might have been unusual, but whether it was the conference that I gave at the university, the community conversation that we had with CSOs at night or the meeting with our new UNESCO Chair team, what I often experience as a kind of tyranny of the clock was not present.  We started when people were there, we took the time that we needed to share our thoughts, and we gave time to everyone who had a comment or a question.  The only place that I have had a similar sense of time and respect for all to speak and listen is when I have been in Indigenous communities.  As I say, perhaps my visit was an exception to the rule, but however common it might be; it was a wonderful opportunity for me.

A third observation is the challenge of language.  English is an imperial language.  It is quite widespread as we know, but outside of those countries where it is the lingua franca, English is limited to a small elite.  Knowledge democracy is about learning to listen.  Being in community groups in Sardinia reminded me as being in rural areas of India or parts of Africa that if the benefits of CBR are to be spread further, we need to be much more attentive to the development of materials in Italian, Hindi, Kiswahili, Sencothen and so forth and to the translation from these languages into English.  Translation cannot be a one-way street!  Linguistic domination needs to be taken up much more vigorously by our global movement.

For more information on FOIST see www.foistlab.eu.  IntHum’s website is www.inthum.eu You can email them at foist@uniss.it

Budd L Hall, March 20, 2017

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