Interview with Diana Rodriguez-Gomez, AC4 Fellow, 2014 Cohort
Diana Rodriguez-Gomez comes from the Department of Comparative Education at Teachers College. She is currently pursuing an Ed.D. in International Educational Development with an emphasis on Peace Education and Human Rights.
How did you get interested in the field of comparative education?
I am really interested in the connections between violence and education. This interest motivated me to do my M.A. in International Education and Development. When I finished my M.A., I looked for doctorate programs to further research this connection. What I found was Peace Education at Teachers College. It was the only program I found that allowed me to tackle education, armed conflict and the role of education to address violence.
What motivated you to apply for the AC4 Fellowship, and how did you hear about it?
When I first arrived to TC, I looked into all the institutions around Columbia and signed up for all the listserves of which AC4 was one. I had heard from other PhD students how they applied for this grant and I thought it was exciting to be part of a community where members are all interested in violence and war.
For my project, I conducted visual ethnography. To do this, I had to get cameras and develop the film – it was expensive! The funding really helped.
What is visual ethnography? Why did you choose this research method?
So, here’s the challenge: how do you understand the connection between armed conflict, violence, and education in a context where people are afraid to talk about war? I was very interested in how the political violence of the armed conflict was permeating daily life in a chosen school community. Photographs gave me this chance.
Photographs give you the great opportunity to go beyond an interview; in an interview one has power. When you have photographs, you give the “subject” or the other person the chance to make a selection. I was able to gain understanding: there’s all this political violence happening here but life goes on.
The children I worked with had the camera and they decided what to take. After I developed the films, I gave them the photos in a sealed envelope, so each had the chance to remove any photo they did not want to share. Then, with their selected photos, they decided what they wanted to say. This gave the photographer power to have more control and authority about their own interpretations.
Please tell us more about the process involved in visual ethnography. Did any unexpected things happen?
It meant working closely not only with the students but also with parents. The photographs gave me an extract into the children’s daily lives, showing me how they live, their houses and families.
I would give them the camera with only one question: how is your day in your daily life? They would keep the camera for a week to take 27 pictures, then bring them back and I would go to Quito and develop the film. I would not see the photos till I returned the film to the children for their editing. We would then talk about the photos. The questions would be: who took the photo, why did you take it, what is happening, who is in the picture, or which photo would you like to take that you didn’t yet.
Many times parents or older siblings took the children’s’ camera because it was something fun to have. So, for many, it was an object of power. I don’t mean that they were empowered; just there was some tension there.
I remember one student who was very short. He was very upset because his cousins were big and grownups and he was never included. He took all photos of his family. In discussing the photos, he said, “I was so happy. Because I had the camera, I was able to get into the room with them.” All his cousins had been in this room where they usually wouldn’t allow him but, because he had the camera, he was able to be part of the grownups.
What was the biggest challenge in using this method? And, what impact did it have?
The interpretation is a key challenge. As a researcher, you don’t want to assume that everything in the picture is the whole truth. It’s a construction. The challenge is what to do with that information. How do you make the difference between what seems real in the photo, the interpretation the students gives and your own interpretation from your perspective? These levels are important to recognize in the data analysis. Many times it is celebrated to have a window into the world of this person, but it is more complicated than that.
The political, structural and normalized violence in this context is so embedded. Giving the children a camera allowed for a new space, a new kind of interaction; being able to see how they live outside the school furthered my study. For example, I realized that most of the students would wake up at 4am to help their parents, preparing arepas and tamales and selling them, or helping them in church as many were Christians.
Because I was able to see these images, I was able to ask more questions about the whole social setting, not just about the space within the classroom. It really opened my mind about how complex the lives of these children were.
Some teachers were complaining about how students were not completing their homework; I began to understand differently. I thought, “yes, but also this student was awake at 4am to work, then came to school, went home to do laundry and took care of her younger siblings, and got to bed at 11pm.” While I agreed with them as a teacher that the student hadn’t done what was asked, there were all these dynamics.
I want to be aware that I could not change things from what I did. It was a great contribution to my research and my own understanding of these relationships but that’s it. Yes, the children were excited but I cannot say that it changed them, even as photographers – the cameras were just disposables!
What inspired you into this research topic?
I was shocked in 2009 when I heard that Colombia was the only country in Latin America producing refugees. I’m Colombian and in Colombia the public was just tackling internally displaced people. I was thinking “come on! That doesn’t just happen here.” I started reading about it and collecting data. I realized that I wanted to tackle “refuge” and in Ecuador. There are refugees in Panama, Venezuela and Costa Rica, but Ecuador is the main country in which they go.
First I wanted to understand how they have access to the school. I got a grant from ILAS and went to pilot my study. Once in Ecuador I realized that the question was not about access; it was about how being a refugee would shape your educational experience. And I wanted to do it in two different settings: in Quito and in the border.
In the border, I got to this school, and my question was: what does it mean to be a refugee in the border? It is fascinating when you realize that for NGOs and UNHCR, refugee is the main category. For them, it is really important because it helps them distribute resources, categorize who makes part of this group and who doesn’t. But then when you ask teachers, they say “I don’t know if they are refugee or not” or “I know because UNHCR told me.”
When you ask students, they don’t care. I would ask, “are you a refugee?” and they will say “no,” but then I would check their folder, and there they are shown as a refugee. For them, it was not an important category. The role of refugee does not matter to them or their educational experience. What is more important is the relationship you have with war; i.e. are you the son/daughter of a Ecuadorian soldier or of a FARC member, are you here because you were displaced from Colombia, etc.
Has your research changed from your fieldwork?
I am seeing it is also about how to solve problems. My challenge right now is how to solve something that people don’t want to talk about. How do you solve the silence? What is the role of teacher training and the curriculum in this context?
Now with the peace dialogues, people in Colombia are talking about the role of education and, “Oh, education will solve it.” But, when you get into a classroom, you see that this is not so. People feel so much fear that they don’t mention it. Some of my students were related to the FARC. One told me “Last week when we had combats, I went and helped build the trenches and shot bullets”. They play a part in the combat. How do you promote peace in such an environment?
What advice do you have for students applying for the AC4 Graduate Student Fellowship or as general pointers for students hoping to do original research on violence or conflict resolution?
Ethnography was an amazing approach. It involved building trusted relationships, conducting participant observations and interviews. I would interview people over and over, including parents, teachers, school administrators and students. Maybe what is most important in the field is talking to people and listening. Also, I suggest reading things from many different places. If I had not reached outside peace education notion, I would not have been able to do this research.