IRDF - Examining activism and social engagement

Established by the Vice-President Research, the Interdisciplinary Research Development Fund (IRDF) is a one-time non-renewable research fund that will provide the foundation for developing the next generation of interdisciplinary concentrations of research excellence at the University of Lethbridge. The General Faculties Council Research Committee reviewed applications for IRDF funding and three proposals received support (up to $100,000 each over two years). This is one of three projects funded in 2012.

As Bob Dylan crooned in 1964, "The times they are a-changin'." While much has happened since Dylan first sang those famous words, they remain true today – the question on the minds of a group of University of Lethbridge researchers is 'how are they a-changin'?'

IRDF activism
Dr. Bruce MacKay, left, with Dr. Josephine Mills.

Funded by the U of L's new Interdisciplinary Research Development Fund (IRDF), Complex Social Change: teaching, performing, exhibiting, designing, mapping is a project that focuses on the issues around being engaged and affecting social change.

"We are a group of change-makers, investigating how change is made," says Dr. Josephine Mills, director of the U of L Art Gallery and principal investigator on this project. The other change-makers include Dr. Bruce MacKay (liberal education), Lisa Doolittle (theatre and drama), Dr. Tiffany Muller-Myrdahl (women and gender studies) and Emily Luce (new media).

"We are interested in the large issues around what constitutes effective action and whether young people today are engaged in social issues," explains Mills, who says the work was inspired by debates around the recent Occupy movement.

"The Occupy movement, no matter how disorganized they may appear to be, suggests that what may be lacking is the theory, knowledge and skills necessary to sustain active engagement against societal pressures that encourage passive acceptance," says Mills, who hopes to draw on the success of social movements that did work like the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), which revolutionized AIDS activism in the 90s.

"This project will explore connections between a liberal education and encouraging activism and social engagement," says Mills.

She notes that taking a multi-disciplinary approach allows for different ways of approaching the issue.

"People from different disciplines tackle problems differently," says Mills. "Ideas can be investigated through poetry, art and dance, and connections can be made in non-linear ways. That's what makes this interdisciplinary model so strong."

While still in the early stages, plans for the project include several public activities and activist events including: exhibitions, video screenings and public-site projects with the U of L Art Gallery; a community activist dance project; a web site and social media postings; high profile speakers; a local speaker's series; and a publication. These public events and projects will address specific social issues, will serve as case studies for the exploring larger concepts, and will ground the theoretical context in actual practice.

"Ultimately, we want this research to contribute to a contemporary definition of liberal education and to better understand what is involved with creating participation and engagement in activist actions in today's society," says Mills.

This story first appeared in the May issue of the Legend. For a look at the full issue in a flipbook format, follow this link.