Distraction Free Reading

Community-Based Research is Hard, and Worth It

The Salt Spring Dollar

I began studying the Salt Spring dollar (SSD), a community currency used on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, Canada, for my May-August MA fieldwork period. I had heard about the currency from one of my committee members, and from some former Salt Spring residents I knew. One of the main research questions I outlined was “What the future of the currency might look like?” From the outside, there was a lot of optimism about a currency like this. Many tourists were interested in it, and many residents were proud of it. From the beginning, I knew I would have to take a community-based approach, which meant starting by contacting and meeting with board members of the Salt Spring Island Monetary Foundation, the currency’s issuer. It also meant volunteering with this community organization to exchange the currency at the Saturday market the community holds, which has many artisan goods stands, as well as food producers and prepared food.

Community-based research means that the researcher is not the ultimate authority on any given subject. Collaborations with community members from the conception of the project make research processes generative, rather than purely extractive (Cook 2015). Community-based research sometimes enters the realm of advocacy or activism (Cook 2015; Loperena 2016). When researchers commit themselves to a research agenda that addresses community-defined problems on their own terms, they may or may not also be committing themselves to taking action to address these problems. Some scholars see action as a condition for creating meaningful knowledge during a community-based research project (Cornwall and Jewkes 1995, 1667). While I did not necessarily engage in activist research, I did end up advocating, on a small scale, for the Salt Spring dollar. This was especially true at the Saturday Market, where I tried to both listen patiently to what people had to say about the currency, which was often critical or dismissive, while offering positive thoughts on its efficacy based on what supporters had told me. While I am not totally convinced that activism is a necessary component for community-based research, it is clear to me that believing, on some level, in your participants’ mission is critical to the success of community-based research.

Salt Spring Island is a community which is somewhat emblematic of Coastal British Columbia writ large. It is small most of the year, with a population of around 10,000 people, but during the summer its population grows to about twice the size because of travelers and summer homeowners. The income inequality is staggering, and community organizations such as the SSIMF often aimed to address issues such as a large homeless population existing alongside a large number of multimillion-dollar homeowners. The SSIMF structured the SSD so that it is legally a coupon, redeemable at multiple businesses, which is bought with Canadian dollars. While community members and tourists are able to spend the dollar like they would Canadian cash at many businesses and market stalls, the SSIMF is able to donate the Canadian dollars which are exchanged for Salt Spring dollars to various other community organizations with mandates such as environmental protection, or housing Salt Spring’s homeless people.

Laid out on a table are copies of the Salt Spring Dollar used within the community of British Columbia along with texts utilized by the author to aid her in gathering information regarding the SSD when doing her research.

During my fieldwork, I worked with the Salt Spring Island Monetary Foundation to exchange Salt Spring dollars for Canadian dollars at the Saturday market (Image by Author).

Unfortunately, the SSD is in decline and the SSIMF has not been able to utilize its community action fund as effectively as in the past. There are several reasons for this decline. The first is political. There are personalities in certain other Salt Spring Island community organizations that clash with personalities in the SSIMF, resulting in a lack of collaboration between these organizations. The second is practical by way of the political. The credit union on the island, Island Savings, was once an independent entity with branches on Vancouver Island and the various Gulf Islands. They also housed an ATM (legally, a vending machine) for the SSD, which allowed people to deposit it into their accounts. This was crucial to having the SSD circulate at Saturday markets, both allowing people to withdraw it to spend, and allowing vendors to deposit it into their bank accounts for a 5% penalty, a similar figure to the transaction costs imposed by companies like Square. When Island Savings merged with a larger credit union company, they were no longer interested in supporting the SSD. This meant that the currency became virtually inaccessible for many people. The third reason for the currency’s decline is purely practical. The SSD only exists as scrip. Most people simply do not use cash anymore, so exchanging CAD for SSD happens less often. Because SSD is used much less often than in the past, my study ended up focusing more on the reasons for this than I had anticipated, despite that my initial research questions had been focused highly on the future of the organization.

The beauty of community-based research is that everybody will have a different experience with it by the nature of the methodology. The best practices most researchers agree on are all aimed at creating an environment where research participants help shape the direction of the project, and exactly what comes out of it. In some communities, this may involve creative projects like photovoice. In others, it involves starting on the level of a community to identify issues they face and to conduct a study beginning there. This was my approach with the SSIMF. A core element of my research was volunteering with them, in whatever capacity they could use me. I sat with one of the SSIMF board members at Saturday markets throughout the summer, surveyed the market to find out which vendors would accept the currency, and built a spreadsheet of local businesses that would accept it. Even at the level of the small community built around this currency, community-based research comes with its challenges.

The Difficulty of Community-Based Research

During the process of writing my Master’s thesis, after I had officially completed my ethnographic fieldwork, my HREB approval remained open for the reason that I was hoping there would be more to it than the four months I had lived on the island. I reached out several times to the community organization I had conducted my fieldwork with, guided by the best practices of community-based research. I let them know that I was writing the thesis and that I wanted to hear whether they had any suggestions for areas that I should explore, or were interested in hearing about the results of my research. From various case studies I have read on community-based research, and from my experience in a study involving Cowichan Tribes and a school district, about the best practices for this kind of research, I assumed my research participants would be excited to hear about the research. I figured this would be particularly true because many of the areas I had identified as being barriers to SSD use could be remedied fairly easily. Finding a new home for the SSD ATM would mean that many former occasional users would likely come back. Investing in some sort of digital communication infrastructure could mean people who are strictly cashless would exchange the currency. I was met with radio silence from the organization. One member of the board of directors from this community organization (and there were only three) never even followed through with me to be interviewed for my thesis research. Another suffered a family emergency towards the end of my fieldwork and understandably dropped out of participation. Besides the lack of post-fieldwork engagement which is typically expected in community-based research, it was sometimes also difficult to get ahold of board members during the fieldwork period. Working so closely with the organization also meant that I relied on them somewhat to direct me on how I could help them. This sometimes made me feel like I was twiddling my thumbs when I could have been working on something more useful to them.

Why It’s Still Worth It

I believe that the lack of continued investment in the research outcomes of this particular study is likely due to the fairly low stakes of the research in my participants’ lives. The two people with who I had continued engagement were community currency organizers elsewhere, both of these currencies being in active and early stages of development. None of the SSIMF board members made their income from the currency, and besides the person I never got a chance to speak to, were busy with running businesses and caring for families.

If one plans to do research within a community, starting with the integral community organizations is key to access. Without having worked with the Salt Spring Island Monetary Foundation, despite the frustrations, there would have been no research to speak of. When I spoke to locals about the currency many of them said things along the lines of “Oh we don’t have that anymore. I don’t think we have in five or ten years,” or “Why do you care about that? Nobody uses that anymore.” It would have likely been impossible to find the core users of the currency, and the people interested in it for other reasons, without either being directed to speak with them on behalf of the organizations, or attracting them by sitting behind an SSD booth at the market. In short, my research would not only have been exploitative without taking a community-based approach, but it would have been impossible.


References

Cook, Samuel. 2015. “The Activist Trajectory and Collaborative Context: Indigenous Peoples in Virginia and the Formation of an Anthropological Tradition.” Collaborative Anthropologies 7 (2): 115–41. 

Cornwall, Andrea, and Rachel Jewkes. 1995. “What Is Participatory Research?” Social Science & Medicine 41 (12): 1667–76. 

Loperena, Christopher Anthony. 2016. “A Divided Community: The Ethics and Politics of Activist Research.” Current Anthropology 57 (3): 332–46. 

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