NCA Micro Grant Report
Louisa Edgerly, Independent Scholar
This report details my travel to the Republic of Congo to begin fieldwork on a collaborative research project with the International Conservation and Education Fund (INCEF), a US-Congolese nonprofit organization that produces educational films on topics related to public health and environmental conservation. The aim of my research is to develop descriptive accounts and interpretations of the intercultural communication that takes place between INCEF, their audience of rural Congolese villagers, and the global health workers and environmentalists who also work on the issues of human health and environmental conservation in Congo.
Identifying local partners
I learned about INCEF’s work – and its relevance to theories of intercultural communication – through conversation with an INCEF board member. Following this initial conversation in May of 2011, I drafted a project proposal outlining a possible collaboration between INCEF and the University of Washington’s Center for Local Strategies Research (UWCLSR) to study INCEF’s methods of communication and their process of project design through the lens of speech codes theory.
I sent the draft proposal to INCEF’s Executive Director, Cynthia Moses, and to UWCLSR. When all parties expressed interest in moving forward with the project, I then began to discuss possible dates for an initial research trip to Congo to observe INCEF’s work in place. Based on INCEF’s planned activities for 2012, Cynthia and I determined that November and December, 2012 would be a good time for my visit. I estimated that I could raise funds to cover a two-month stay in Congo, and to pay for travel of about a week to a remote location outside the capital city to observe INCEF’s project implementation.
Raising research funds
Once I had chosen the dates for my research trip, I began by setting up an account on a crowd-funding web site called Petridish. I had done quite a lot of research on possible sources of funding for research, but as an independent scholar there were not many options available. The National Communication Association‘s Travel Microgrant was one notable exception, and I applied for this in addition to my other fund-raising efforts.
Crowd-funding offered the best – and fastest – mechanism to raise the $7,000 I estimated I would need to cover the costs of the entire trip. I created a short video to put on the Petridish web site, chose the different donation levels and the rewards for each level (a photograph from the trip, subscription to the trip’s blog, etc.), and set up the crowd-funding platform. In fifty days I raised just over $7,000 through my personal network of friends and family, using social media tools and email appeals. Petridish charged 4% of the total raised for providing the web site, and Amazon Payments also took a transaction fee from each donation made online. I was able to use the remainder to cover my direct research costs, including air fare, food, housing, and local transportation in Congo.
The timing of my travel depended to a great extent on INCEF’s schedule, and thus I had to depart for Congo before the decision about the NCA microgrants was announced. I crossed my fingers and booked my ticket for Brazzaville, Congo.
The NCA microgrant for $1,000 covered one third of the total round trip airfare from Seattle to Brazzaville, and thus allowed me to use other funds raised to cover unexpected expenses that arose during my field work, including several extra days spent in the northern town of Impfondo due to canceled flights, and the wildly unpredictable cost of gasoline, which increased travel costs within Congo.
Research Activities in Congo
The aim of my research in Congo was to study the communication methods used by INCEF, and to assess the degree to which they constituted a dialogic and participatory approach to intercultural communication. This field trip also aimed to allow me to see whether further academic collaboration might be able to offer some real benefits to INCEF, by offering a theoretical approach to intercultural dialogue that was compatible with their overall goals and experience, as well as helping them make connections with other organizations doing similar work.
In Brazzaville, I stayed in a guest room at INCEF’s headquarters, located in the Centreville neighborhood. The experience of studying human beings in their natural settings almost never goes completely smoothly, and this trip was no exception. INCEF’s Executive Director had intended in be in Brazzaville to meet me, but she was delayed several weeks and did not arrive until I had been there almost four weeks. The project that I had planned to observe was on hold due to lack of funds, and many of the activities that I had hoped to observe were likewise delayed or suspended. All of this provided me with the chance to explore Brazzaville and observe daily life there, to have longer conversations with INCEF’s staff, and to study their library of public health and conservation films in greater detail. The realities of living and working in a developing country, with inconsistent electrical supply, running water, and internet service also provided important background context to help me understand the structural barriers INCEF faces in their work every day.
My first weeks of observations and interviews with INCEF staff, and with individuals from other organizations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society that partner with INCEF in Brazzaville, provided me with a preliminary set of data to analyze, and important context for my later observations in the field. After four weeks in Brazzaville, I traveled north to the town of Impfondo, where I met with two of INCEF’s educators to prepare for a trip out to the village of Makolongoulou to screen several INCEF films as part of their work on violence prevention and public health with UNICEF. I conducted observations at a number of INCEF film screenings and at the facilitated discussions that followed, both in the village and in Impfondo. This trip gave me the opportunity to see INCEF’s communication methodology in practice, and added a great deal of information to the data I had collected through earlier interviews. From Impfondo, I returned to Brazzaville to conduct a few final interviews and prepare to return to Seattle.
Further research activities
Back in Seattle, I have continued to pursue new contacts and find connections with researchers doing similar work. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have found that many more people are interested in talking with me now that I have completed an initial field study, and I have begun to develop several promising contacts at the University of Washington in the departments of Anthropology and Computer Science and Engineering. I have written a paper based on my preliminary research findings, and submitted it to the NCA conference. I am also developing a project in collaboration with Public Health-Seattle & King County and the Masters of Communication in Communities & Networks program at UW. I will lead a year-long graduate student practicum to apply some of the communication methodologies used by INCEF – video, facilitated discussion, local perspectives and languages – to the task of reaching the many different cultural and language communities around King County, Washington with public health messages.
I remain in touch with INCEF’s Executive Director and I am actively pursuing ways to return to Congo to conduct more field research with INCEF staff. My research experience thus far has shown that there is a very clear connection to theories of intercultural dialogue in INCEF’s practice, and that engaging with these theories could enhance INCEF’s work on future projects. It has also become clear that continued involvement in scholarly research will benefit INCEF by raising their profile among possible donor organizations and academic institutions. In addition, this collaboration will offer them access to new technologies to assist in the dissemination of their films and educational tools. Another possibility that has opened up would involve INCEF in training local people in Congo to produce their own videos on public health and environmental topics, thus creating a more participatory process of two-way communication between citizens and policy makers in Congo. This methodological shift has emerged from the research connections I have begun to build as a result of my initial fieldwork.
The NCA travel microgrant played a very important part in the successful completion of my field trip to Congo. Completing this initial pilot study has given me a foundation of preliminary data and access to a whole new network of connections that would not have been possible without the travel grant.
[NOTE: Louisa Edgerly’s original project description is available here; further information about her project in a report to the Center for Local Strategies Research is here.]