People behind the research: Jen Margaret and Working as Allies

Jen Margaret profile photo

In August 2013 AWEA released the book “Working as allies: supporters of indigenous justice reflect” by Jen Margaret. Jen shares why she does research, talks about her work promoting dialogue and learning amongst non-indigenous supporters of indigenous justice, and about the research process.

What is your research background?

My background is in adult-education and community development, the latter largely within local government contexts. Within this I’ve had an active interest in social justice, particularly te Tiriti o Waitangi issues. I’ve worked on research projects for local organisations, such as the Raetihi Community Charitable Trust and Otara Action Network Committee, for national NGOS, and I’ve done a number of research projects through AWEA.
I’ve also been involved in research in the Kalimpong region in India through Development Studies at the University of Auckland, and have been active in capability development projects through the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, including an initiative called Facilitating Learning in Action for Social Change.
In 2010 I was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to travel to North America to talk to non-indigenous people supporting indigenous justice issues. In 2012 I was fortunate to be awarded the Loxley Fellowship to research in more depth and produce a book about people working as allies to indigenous justice here in Aotearoa and in Australia.

What does community research mean for you?

I think a key difference in approach between academic research such as my Masters and community research such as my Working as allies research, or the research I’m involved in on youth needs in the Waimarino, is the language that you use, and the emphasis on making the output (the book, report or resource), accessible to those whose work it is intended to support and/or inform.
An action component is really important to me as well. Designing a research process being mindful of how the process itself might build understanding and support action and how the findings can be presented so that people can see a path to action.
Whatever research you do there needs to be rigor in order to ensure quality. That way you can stand by what your findings are because you have used an appropriate and robust method and approach.

What drives you to do community research?

If you’re involved in social change work or community development then having a good understanding of the context/s you are working in and issues you are working to address is integral. So research is a vital part of the work.
The challenge sometimes is around what we call research, and what we regard as research. Often people working in communities do not think of themselves as researchers—though they are often using research skills on a daily basis as they do their work—they are finding out about what others are doing in their field, reflecting on what is happening, evaluating what is and isn’t working. So sometimes it is about having frameworks for that knowledge, ways of documenting and sharing that knowledge, so that it can be recognised, valued and utilized.
One of the great things about community research, and communities owning their own research and being engaged in it, is that it can give them power in their relationships with other bodies, like government departments, local government and funders. It can be a tool that really serves and empowers communities.
When working with communities or groups, on research, it needs to be a collaborative process that is either initiated by the community or that the community supports. I’m always mindful, if I’m an outsider in that community, of where my voice is in the research and how power is working. I think that awareness is not just relevant to community research, but is part of working in communities, particularly when you are not part of that community. And particularly if you are a Pākehā, middle-class, privileged person, as I am.

Could you tell us about your book “Working as allies”?

On my Winston Churchill Fellowship I met with a number of people in North America working as allies. After creating thematic resources based on conversations with those people, the feedback I got was that it’d be great to have some more in-depth reflections formally published—hence the book.
In Working as allies non-indigenous supporters of indigenous justice in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand discuss their practice. Through in-depth interviews they share the challenges of this work and their responses to these. They reflect on what led them to become involved in indigenous justice issues, what informs their approach and how they know if their work is useful.
The focus on working as allies has come through my involvement in Treaty work, and considering how as Pākehā members of a Tangata Tiriti movement we work effectively alongside Māori in support of tino rangatiratanga. It also relates to the community development and international development work I’ve done. The principles of working as an ally apply across all social justice contexts where there are people not directly affected by a particular justice issue are working to support those who are.

How did you do the research?

After setting up relationships with the research participants and providing questions in advance, I interviewed people, mainly in person but in one instance by Skype. The interviews generally took an hour and a half to two hours. All the interviews followed the same format, though there was scope for the participants to explore issues of particular interest to them. It was important to me to have some structure to the interviews, to keep things focused. The people I interviewed have such a depth of wisdom and experience we could have spent hours talking about their work so the structure helped make it a manageable project.
Afterwards I prepared full transcripts and provided that, with an edited version—the draft chapter—back to the participants. Then we collaboratively edited the chapters further. It took 2-3 months for each one, sometimes longer. Once the interviews were edited there was the process of compiling them into the book.

What are some of the challenges of this research method?

Crafting the spoken word into something that is readable, and doing that in a way that honours, and keeps the meaning that was intended by the person participating. The challenge is to hold on to their voice, but craft something that is manageable to read. There is quite a gulf between the spoken word and the written word.
Another challenge of this form, as you’re working with people who are doers and are generally very humble people, is drawing them out about their experience.
Also, while the project might be the centre of your world the people participating have generally got a lot of other things happening at any particular time. So you’ve got to realise the back and forth of the collaborative process will take more time than you think. But it’s worth it!

What is next for you?

Over the coming months I’m doing presentations and workshops here and in Australia related the book. I’m keen to do more work supporting people and organisations who are positioned as non-indigenous allies with the aim of enhancing our practice.
I’m also on the look-out for paid work and I’m applying for funding for new projects such developing resources for community organisations working in Treaty relationships and documenting the history of AWEA for its centenary.
For more information on Working as allies and ordering details see:

Community Research


Get the latest news updates sent directly to your email.

Sign Up
Back to top