Sowing Scholar-Activism: Situating Solidarity Alongside Science

October 23, 2023 | 11:03 am
Silhouetted figures at sunrise or sunset are fishing in the ocean on Sullivan's Island, South Carolina.Cody Black/Unsplash
Queen Quet, Ryan Thomson

Many frontline communities serve as the source of scientific data for researchers and scientists looking to use them as research topics—but see little to no benefit in sharing their knowledge, expertise, and traditions. Some communities have even seen their efforts and livelihoods undermined by outside scholarship, and from these negative experiences, develop a healthy distrust of academics. For many years, this was the general trend for the Afro-Indigenous Gullah/Geechee Nation of North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

This post explores some broad suggestions for leveraging science to support activist efforts, based on a decade of work by the Gullah/Geechee Sustainability Think Tank (GGSTT). The GGSTT has partnered with the people of Gullah/Geechee Nation to collaborate on issues facing the community, in a way that minimizes the potential for extraction or exploitation. In doing so, we consider the possibility of fostering solidarity through practices of scholar-activism. Scholar-activists, generally defined are those who seek to align their academic work and ideals “to further social change and work directly with marginal groups or those in struggle.”

Specifically, GGSSTT is now working with the Gullah/Geechee Nation to support ongoing land struggles in the Atlantic Sea Islands and the surrounding Lowcountry. The commitment to equal partnership extends to this post, co-authored by Queen Quet, head of state for the Gullah/Geechee people, and Ryan Thomson, a professor at Auburn University and member of the GGSTT.

We know not everyone is familiar with the Gullah/Geechee Nation and the issues faced by this unique community, so before we identify the best practices that have worked for our collaboration as scholar-activists, allow us to provide context.

The Gullah/Geechee Nation

The Gullah/Geechee are an Afro-Indigenous nation whose ancestors include those taken from West Africa who have resided on the Atlantic Sea Islands since the chattel enslavement era, and many of the Indigenous American communities that existed in what is called “The Lowcountry.”

Following the Civil War and General Sherman’s Field Order 15, which set aside roughly 400,000 acres in forty-acre sections for emancipated formerly enslaved people, many Freemen developed a network of towns along the stretch of coastal land between Northeastern Florida and Cape Fear, North Carolina. The land and the people who live there are today referred to as the Gullah/Geechee Nation.

During the era of insulation that followed Reconstruction, thousands of families preserved traditions inherited from Africa while also developing new ones.  Gullah/Geechee coastal subsistence lifestyles, along with African-derived customs and language, may appear old-fashioned when compared to the prevailing narratives of racial progress and modernization, industrialization, and urbanization that characterize the mid-20th century. However, the knowledge of how these traditions have been sustained is exactly the reason that researchers and BIPOC people seeking to hold onto or learn traditional knowledge journey to the coast to experience them.

Land ownership issues facing the community

Over the past century, Black land ownership in the Southern U.S. has decreased by roughly 90%. A significant contributing factor to this incredible loss has been the legal issue known as “heirs’ property.” Heirs’ property is real property passed down through generations in the absence of a probated will or estate plan, and/or without a clear title that assigns ownership to the current group of heirs.

With heirs’ property, multiple heirs—even dozens—can own interest in the property. This means any decisions regarding the land need to be agreed upon by all heirs. It also means that just one heir can force a sale through the court system. Predatory speculators exploit this by finding heirs willing to sell their shares, leading to the loss of land from people who want it. These properties can get trapped in the probate process and reside under a clouded title, which makes them ineligible for bank loans or most government programs. This is among the most vulnerable types of property ownership.

Heirs’ property significantly affects Black families. And it’s a struggle faced by many  Gullah/Geechee families. Local mobilization by the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition showed the cultural dimension of the broader movement to resolve heirs’ property, long before a popular 2016 Vice News documentary shed light on the issue. The discrimination of the Jim Crow era in many ways evolved into this legal form of theft that strips families of their lands, homes, farms, forests, and corresponding intergenerational wealth. This legal maneuvering uses forced tax sales, forced partition sales, adverse possession seizures, eminent domain, and code violations to take inherited property for a fraction of the market value. Those who have managed to hold onto their land are often pressured to leave as a result of rapid spikes in property taxes due to nearby zoning changes and the arrival of private retirement and gated areas or tourist resorts.

The struggle over coastal land has continued to intensify as locals endure successive waves of development, rezoning, and ecological destruction. While thousands of acres of ancestral Gullah/Geechee land have already been lost, there’s a persistent risk of more loss. It seems that each hard-fought victory brings about three new conflicts. The GGSTT has documented a handful of these struggles in the St. Helena Story Map.

Situating solidarity and a culture of exchange

Building on the formation of the GGSTT, which sought to mobilize scholars to support the needs of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, we developed a rough template that might offer a helpful guide for those seeking to bridge research and activism. Years of work by geographers Kate Derickson and Annette Watson helped lay the groundwork for the  approach used by the GGSST, which has grown and evolved over the years. These efforts of members of the Gullah/Geechee Sustainability Think Tank led to research expectations for collaboration laid out in the WEBE Gullah/Geechee Cultural Capital and Collaboration Anthology (2015), a more scholarly manual and detailed resource we highly recommend.

Put simply, science conducted in collaboration with a community can be an effective tool for assisting with local needs on the ground and scientific discovery in a mutually reinforcing manner. In hopes of promoting this type of work, we have developed several principles that aid in developing such a project.

Principles for scholar-activism situated solidarity

The Gullah/Geechee have been frequently studied by academics and researchers, with little to no benefit to their community. The trend is for academics to arrive from the mainland, study a single piece of the tradition or culture, and then promptly disappear. Months later, community members see a study released without any follow-up or clarifying questions. Many of these studies have been exploitative, taking traditional knowledge and repacking it into a line on a CV. Many locals are now suspicious of scholars—rightfully so. It is common for academics to present a caricature of the culture to, in effect, extract knowledge.

Solidarity is the collective stand against structural injustice, an emerging political relation with/to others in opposition to powerful authorities that oppress and exploit. Solidarity seeks to proactively avoid knowledge extractivism—exploiting community members for their knowledge and giving nothing back. Since science seldom occurs in a vacuum, scholars can work to humanize their collaborators, findings, and broader implications. This generally involves reflexive engagement, accountability, and the development of mutual trust. Such a mission often necessitates leveraging our own capital; social (network), financial (grants), human (know-how), and cultural (standing) resources associated with academic privilege. This is not to advocate for abandoning objective research goals, but rather to be cognizant of how biases can undermine the fundamental claims being made by a group, and how findings might be interpreted.

Scholar-activism as practiced through what scholars Nagar and Geiger call “situated solidarities” has become a useful and popular concept within the GGSTT. Essentially, this is the idea that scholars and activists can form alliances or connections based on sharing their experiences, contexts, or circumstances within a specific social, cultural, or political environment. It emphasizes the idea that solidarity and support among individuals or groups are often influenced by their particular situations, needs, and struggles. While we might have different identities and corresponding experiences, we need to address the various factors such as race, gender, socioeconomic status, geographical location, and privileges contained therein. Put simply, scholars can build trust and produce knowledge that abides by the struggle of marginalized communities in a way that rejects, but does not ignore, the violent histories of the academy.

Stay Humble
Navigating thoughtful engagement can be difficult and figuring out how to best support a collaboration often involves trial and error. Many research projects have to be thoroughly restructured to serve local collaborators better. When academics and community leaders share a space, it is important to be open to new ideas and stay humble. From celebrated Elders to non-profit lawyers to anglers and tenured professors, there is a diverse combination of backgrounds often present in these spaces. Try to assume everyone is well-intended and avoid conflict when possible.  The GGSTT placed humility at the top of the list as a priority for fostering solidarity. It is important to stay humble whenever possible. Look for complementary relationships and support one another.

Prioritize Community Needs
Activism helps keep research relevant and interesting. Research in turn can help validate a claim and its corresponding position. They can and should be mutually reinforced when possible. An ornithologist can help document nesting territories, an ecologist document biodiversity marshland, and an agricultural economist can help assess the value of agroecological traditions. There is no shortage of potential applications that could aid Gullah/Geechee culture. By developing a sense of grassroots needs on the ground, researchers can plan and initiate studies that arm communities with the evidence needed at crucial junctures such as court proceedings, zoning meetings, and grant applications.

Develop Community-Based Research Questions
Both GGSTT members and Queen Quet are glad to see that Community-Based Research (CBR), applied, and grounded research have seen a resurgence. When initiating a research project, we find that it is best to develop research questions most relevant to the public that also accommodate the background of the scholar. It is quite probable that locals have much better research questions in mind than outsiders do. It is practical to meet people where they are at, rather than starting from a theory not based in people’s lived realities. Furthermore, a CBR question sets up shared interest, which is important because if either party loses enthusiasm for the project, it ceases to grow no matter how many resources are thrown at it.

Be Open to Critical Feedback
For many scholars, confidence is key. Academics have spent years specializing in areas of expertise and being trained to speak with authority. However, no matter how many degrees or certifications, there is likely to be someone else out there with lived experience and knowledge that surpasses our own. Why not ask for feedback from community members as collaborators? Giving a collaborator an opportunity to clarify their intended message and your interpretation of it can often go a long way.  Remember, suggestions and revisions are intended to aid your work. Do your best to welcome comments whenever available.

Preserving the legacy; maintaining the future

For more information on the history and current culture of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, you can visit their site. And if you’d like to support efforts to protect Gullah/Geechee cultural communities and their coastline, please consider the following:

As the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition’s slogan says: “Hunnuh mus tek cyare de root fa heal de tree.” The Gullah/Geechee Sustainability Think Tank continues to gain and create new tools as they dig into the continuation of Gullah/Geechee culture.