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Meet John Harris

John Harris

Feb. 25, 2020

Lupe Davidson, Woodburn Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Director and Academic Collaborator for Social Justice Affairs for the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, corresponded with John Harris in advance of the 2020 Visions of Justice: Northern Uganda and Appalachia event series, featuring humanitarian activist Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe. Davidson and Harris have worked together on photovoice projects and will co-lead a photovoice workshop as part of the series. Harris will also give a lecture on community-based participatory research in Northern Uganda.


Lupe Davidson: Can you talk a bit about your work in Africa? When did you start, what kind of training did you receive and what NGOs have you worked for?

John Harris: I first began working in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2005. I worked with an organization called Church Ecumenical Action Sudan, a consortium of the Sudan Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches, Caritas International and the Lutheran World Federation. I was hired as an emergency planning specialist and helped organize humanitarian relief and basic community infrastructure reconstruction in what is now South Sudan. After about three years I returned to school for a PhD in planning. [Harris has a master's and doctorate from Florida State University with a special focus on planning for developing areas.]

While in school a consulted for a Gates Foundation project in Accra, Ghana, where I studied public toilet provision. In a city of over 2 million, about half the population depends on public pay toilets to meet their daily needs. I worked with local toilet managers to understand how public policy and cost structures of local toilet providers interacted to create public health concerns but also interesting opportunities for community organizing.

For my dissertation I studied informal manufacturers in Nairobi Kenya, learning from them how they organize themselves, how they work together and how their informal context constrains their ability to grow.

From 2014 to 2016 I worked with the organization Family Legacy in Lusaka, Zambia. It is one of the largest educators in the country (behind the government and Catholic Church) and ran a number of schools in Lusaka’s informal settlements. We worked with children there to understand their everyday lives in the settlements and their priorities for infrastructure and other urban investments.

Since 2015, I have been working in northern Uganda. Early efforts to establish community-based participatory research projects evolved into the Center for Peace and Development. We have partnered with local organizations on several projects including an annual peace conference, a baseline survey and a photovoice project, among other initiatives.

Why did you choose to pursue an advanced degree in Regional and City Planning?

I honestly fell backwards into planning. One of my undergraduate majors was sociology, and someone told me once that planning "was like sociology, only doing stuff about what you learn." I joined a master’s program not really knowing what it was all about! In truth I came to learn that urban planning is a discipline that at its best helps communities think through who they are and where they want to go. However, at the same time, planners are also responsible for terrible injustices that have devastated communities all around the world. I am still a planner because I believe that planning, while often used for injustice, can also be an important tool for justice and decolonization.

You have conducted several photovoice projects (which is how we started working together all those years ago). Can you talk a bit about the project you did with African American women in Northeast Oklahoma City and, more importantly, what you learned from the experience?

The unfortunate beginning for this project was the 2016 Daniel Holtzclaw trial. Holtzclaw is a former Oklahoma City police officer serving a prison sentence of 263 years for multiple counts of rape and sexual assault. His crimes were perpetrated against Black women and children in Northeast Oklahoma City neighborhoods, the traditional African American enclave of the city. The trial showed that not only did his crimes intersect with longstanding patterns of racial and gender oppression, but also with the sociopolitical violence of urban neglect and decay. Holtzclaw often took his victims to abandoned schools, vacant lots or other forgotten spaces that are unfortunately ubiquitous throughout African American neighborhoods to assault them. Thus, personal vulnerability interacted not only with longstanding social exclusion, but also legacies of state disinvestment and neglect of certain marginalized neighborhoods.

After the trial, two planning graduate students, an alumna of my program and I facilitated a photovoice project with 26 co-researchers. These were women from Northeast Oklahoma City who dedicated the summer of 2016 to photograph neighborhood conditions and use those photographs as a jumping-off point for reflections on Black women’s safety. We were able to present the photographs in over a dozen venues across the region in the years after the project.

I learned many things. One important thing is that Black women experience certain threats to safety expressly because they are Black women. We cannot design our way out of that reality because it requires political and social action. It requires Black women having meaningful control over urban development decisions.

You and I have had many conversations about what we refer to as the “work” or our “love labor.” What brings you to “the work”?

This continues to evolve for me. I’ve been working in Sub-Saharan Africa for about 15 years, and before that I had been involved in community development in the U.S. in many capacities. This originally has roots in having been raised in a faith community where I came to understand working for “social justice” as the authentic expression of my faith. However, over the years I have had to do the hard work of reflecting critically on how those potentially well-meaning impulses interacted with white supremacy, power and my positionality therein. That is to say, what “the work” is and why I do it has changed over time. Now, I see, or at least hope, that I am in a position to be useful to others. I have had the honor, through partnership, to be of use to women in northern Uganda who themselves are working to transform their communities and societies in which they are situated by re-centering narratives of everyday life and public policy. But, honestly, this is still evolving—I am brought to the work often simply because the work is relational. I am committed to the partners we work with because of the commitments we make to each other.

Another thing we are both committed is teaching and practicing anti-oppressive research methods. How is this approach to research different from how you were trained? How have your students and colleagues responded to this shift in your work?

I was trained in classical social science quantitative and qualitative methods. These by and large positioned me, the researcher, as the main interpreter of reality. In this tradition, I decide what questions are important, I ask the questions and I interpret the answers. People are more or less objects to be studied. This is the framework I brought to my dissertation work and by the time it was all over, I told myself I wouldn’t work like that again. It felt extractive; attending to my own career by pulling info out of people in an asymmetrical relationship where they got nothing out if it. We tell ourselves all kinds of stories about the knowledge we generate to justify this colonial approach to research. I think that’s gross.

Since then, I have tried to work in ways that flatten the hierarchy in the research relationship, co-create with communities the questions they ask themselves, and have them direct in meaningful ways what is done with the answers they produce. But we must acknowledge that it is impossible to take power dynamics out of the work, so we have to commit to consistent critical reflection.

Students that I work with are drawn to this kind of work. But is always interesting to watch students grapple with the fact that there are not really any easy answers. There is no simple recipe. It means often leaving the expertise they work so hard to get at the door along with a drive to accomplish their own objectives. This is hard to do.

As for my colleagues, in general, I am very well supported, and my work is appreciated. That said, the currency of our world is publishing. The commitments I make to the communities I work with do not negate publishing, but it requires much more time to publish than traditional academic research. We prioritize the practical outputs of the research the communities want for improving local life and policy. Those come first. Also, whenever possible, I try to publish with co-researchers. This means ceding control or limiting the kinds of articles I might attempt. This is difficult for many academics to wrap their minds around.

When did you meet Sister Rosemary, and can you share a fond memory you have of her?

I first met Sr. Rosemary in 2014 in a meeting to see what potential there would be for a collaboration between OU and St. Monica’s. One of my fondest memories was a time when Sr. Rosemary took a group of my students aside and taught them traditional Ugandan dances.

What are you looking forward to during your visit to WVU?

I hear you all have some mountains! I love the Appalachians. Also, I am just looking forward to meeting people and hearing about the work being done at WVU.